Marengo County’s Sweet Water High School
by Carolyn Drinkard
The purple and gold bulldog paw unites all SWHS fans. They proudly display this emblem to celebrate their long-standing tradition of winning.
If you drive west along Highway 10 in south Marengo County, you will notice large tracts of pine forests. Even though this is a rural, agricultural area where farmers plant cotton, corn and row crops, they also plant acres of trees to supply the numerous wood product industries in the area.
Drive down the steep Gooley Hills, round the winding curve and there sits the small town of Sweet Water. The first thing you notice is the huge cotton gin on the right. You will also spot a bank, a hardware store, a gas station, a clinic, a family restaurant and City Hall. In Sweet Water, there are no stoplights, no strip malls and no fast-food places.
Nevertheless, the 258 people who live there do have something even more unique, something they call "the treasure in the forest." To find their treasure, you have to turn off Highway 10 onto Main Street and travel a short distance through a quiet neighborhood. There, nestled among the trees, is Sweet Water High School, the town’s pride and joy. In fact, this school is so special to these people that they often use the name Sweet Water to mean both the town and the school!
Sweet Water was settled in the early 1840s. In 1870, city leaders put up a log cabin that was used as both a church and school. In 1920, the state built the first formal school building. From the beginning, Sweet Water High School was the hub of the town, and townspeople saw themselves as a vital part of the school. This symbiotic relationship has improved the school, just as the school has improved the community.
SWHS has 645 students in grades K4-12. These students are 41 percent African-Americans, 58 percent Caucasians and 1 percent other races. Over 69 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. Most get to and from school on buses, coming from 10 smaller feeder communities surrounding the town. This area was hit hard by the nation’s economic downturn, and recovery has been slow. Unemployment still stands around 11 percent, as compared to a state rate of 6 percent. Those who do have jobs work almost entirely in the timber industry. To some, these numbers are bleak, but to the people at SWHS, they are opportunities.
Ty Glass, right, works with ninth-grader Devontae January. Ty graduated from SWHS and returned after college to help teach the STEM classes.
For someone on the outside looking in, the buildings at SWHS may show some age. But step inside and you will realize that something truly amazing is going on here!
"This is a happy place," explained Mark Davis, the assistant principal. "If teachers feel healthy, happy and fulfilled, then they will relate to students in that way. In turn, if students feel healthy, happy and fulfilled, they will take great pride in their school and feel safe. They will also be excited about learning."
At SWHS, students and teachers work as a family, guided by high expectations, cooperation, trust and respect. A dedicated, diverse administration and faculty set the tone for everyone else. Phyllis Mabowitz, the principal, arrived about 10 years ago to serve first as a teacher and then as the instructional coach. She stayed on to take the helm of the school three years ago.
On the other hand, Davis is a native of Sweet Water. He returned to teach and then assist with the leadership of the school.
The faculty is a mixture of both veteran teachers, who have had 20 or more years of experience, and younger teachers, who have taught less than five years. Some are former SWHS graduates, while others have taught in different states and school systems. About half the teachers live within the city limits or in feeder communities nearby. The other half drive from larger towns around the area and bring their own children with them, resulting in an even higher investment in the school.
The school has a rigorous and challenging curriculum. Dedicated teachers have found creative ways to use available technologies to enrich and individualize daily instruction, even though access to technology has lagged behind in this rural area. Their resourcefulness, as well as their commitment to the success of each child, has resulted in amazing academic achievements for Sweet Water’s students. For example, the Class of 2016 earned over $616,000 in scholarships, and 72 percent moved on to two- or four-year colleges. Currently, out of 87 students in the senior and junior classes, 36 percent have made 30 or above on their ACT tests and one has a score of 35. These are very high numbers for a school this size. On state-mandated testing, students outscore area schools from Tuscaloosa to Mobile. Dual enrollment with Coastal Alabama Community College offers students the chance to earn college credits before graduation. Students arrive on campus at 7 a.m. to take College English, or they travel to Thomasville, 15 miles away, to participate in more specialized classes. Mabowitz proudly pointed out that Sweet Water students rarely have to take remedial classes on the college level.
SWHS believes that academics and extracurricular activities are like a great marriage: Each should motivate and strengthen the other. Sweet Water’s proud tradition of athletic success is well-documented with nine football state championships, five baseball state championships and one indoor track championship. Each year, the Robotic Team has placed in the district meet and gone to Auburn to compete in the state finals. The Drama Team’s performances are major productions showcasing incredibly talented children to sold-out audiences. All of these activities serve to support, reinforce and enrich the academic program.
The Drama Team presented “Alice in Wonderland” in March. Jack Mims, left, and Anna Grace Norris were Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
"It’s a partnership," Mabowitz explained. "Our community, our parents, our children and our teachers work together and support each other. We begin to lay the strong, academic foundation in our K4 classes. Here, it’s not about test scores, but about preparing our students for life."
At Sweet Water, school spirit and school pride go hand in hand. Knowing this, administrators used both in an interesting way. After recommending trendy, inexpensive, purple and gold uniforms and outerwear for students, school leaders noticed these small changes have also boosted self-pride that improved behavior and produced a more positive school culture.
Davis gave an example of this domino effect.
"In many schools, the bathrooms are areas for vandalism," he explained. "Not here! We never have any writing on our restroom walls. We don’t even monitor that, because we don’t have to deal with it."
Mabowitz further illustrated the power of school pride.
"During Homecoming Week, each class decorates a section of the halls," she said. "In many schools, administrators have stopped this activity because of vandalism and destruction. Not here! Our students take great pride in their areas, and we never have any vandalism. Our kids take care of stuff."
Each morning, students repeat both the Pledge of Allegiance and the school’s motto: "I will strive to do my best at Sweet Water High School and to be personally responsible for my success." Personal responsibility is a core value. Children are taught how to handle themselves and how to make good decisions. Teachers model positive behaviors both in the classroom and on the athletic fields. Older students are constantly reminded that younger students are watching them, while younger students are taught to work hard for success like their older role models.
Thea Luker, senior, winds up for a fast pitch. Thea has already won an athletic scholarship to Coastal Alabama Community College.
"We have parents who care, and homes that support the child and the teachers," Mabowitz explained. "Our parents want their kids to work hard and be good citizens. Our teachers teach hard, and they make sure kids are engaged. That’s why we have so few discipline issues, because kids are engaged. We don’t just work with high achievers; we work with all students."
A single school with both 4-year-olds and seniors in the same building poses many challenges. Mabowitz, however, sees this as one of Sweet Water’s greatest strengths.
"Because our students spend their elementary, middle and high school years on the same school campus, our faculty is able to know the academic, social and emotional needs of each student," she stated. "We know their families, we know their stories and we are able to celebrate their successes and support them when they experience struggles. Our faculty and staff understand the importance of building relationships with both our students and our school families. We are able to see students grow from young children into young adults, and that is very rewarding."
Community service and volunteerism are just a way of life at Sweet Water. In the Salvation Army’ s Red Kettle Competition among area schools, Sweet Water has won more times than any other school. In addition, students support Special Olympics and Pennies for Patients.
"I am humbled at their generosity of hearts," Mabowitz stated. "Our students and their parents jump in to help. It reflects the work ethic of this community."
Chad Broussard, mayor of Sweet Water, expressed the pride the citizens of Sweet Water feel.
"The first thing any economic developer looks at is how your people are educated," Broussard stated. "The school we have here is top-notch. We look at our school as being a flagship, and we’re right there with them."
To people in this area, Sweet Water High School means much more than just a building for learning. This school means family and caring and helping one another and doing the right thing. This community may be small and it may be rural, but all who live here know they have something very special here, a priceless treasure in the forest.
Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.