“Ree-Form,” as it’s pronounced, is that small, west-Alabama town in Pickens County not far from the Mississippi line. It’s just up U.S. 82 from Gordo. Tuscaloosa is a short hop to the east. Driving through it takes but a second. Less than 2,000 people live there — fewer than Anniston Army Depot’s civilian workforce but slightly more than the population of Ohatchee.
Reform’s ZIP code is 35481, which covers a large swath of land that meanders east toward Gordo and south toward Carrollton. Home to the Pickens County High School Tornadoes, Reform is merely the most distinguishable place in 35481, which tells you all you need to know.
Only 7 percent of residents in that ZIP code are college graduates. The median household income is barely $20,000.
Anniston isn’t Reform. It’s larger, more populous, more prosperous and more influential. Comparisons, even this one, can be unfair. But there is a comparison worth making.
Of Anniston’s multiple ZIP codes, 36201 is the most centrally located and the most economically depressed. Roughly speaking, it covers the city’s downtown and western neighborhoods. It also covers much of Calhoun County’s western areas outside of Anniston’s boundaries, such as Wellborn.
Only 6 percent of 36201’s residents are college graduates. Its median household income is $23,558.
Sounds a lot like Reform.
This data comes courtesy of The Washington Post, which this week published a lengthy report on what’s called “Super ZIP codes” — the postal areas whose average of median household income and percentage of college graduates rank among the nation’s best. Using a 0-99 scale, Super ZIPs are Nos. 95 to 99, they have a typical household income of $120,272 and 68 percent of their adults are college graduates.
Reform’s ZIP code ranks a 1 on the Super ZIP scale.
So does Anniston’s 36201.
For accuracy’s sake, that’s hardly a complete picture of either Anniston or Calhoun County, whose 36207 ZIP code — Golden Springs, Choccolocco, White Plains, etc. — owns a 53 ranking and 28 percent of its residents are college graduates. Anniston’s 36206 ZIP code is a 20.
Oxford’s 36203 is a 40 (19 percent college grads); Alexandria’s 36250 is a 29; Weaver’s 36277 is an 18; Ohatchee’s 36271 is a 23; Jacksonville’s 36265 is a 36 (22 percent college grads); and Piedmont’s 36272 is a 10.
That’s a lot of numbers. But consider two more:
99 — The ranking of the 35223 ZIP code.
96 — The ranking of 35213.
Those are Alabama’s only Super ZIPs; one is Mountain Brook, the other is its neighbor. There are a few highly placed ZIPs around the state’s other largest cities, but none compete with Alabama’s twin versions of Beverly Hills, 90210.
Drill down into this comparison and you unearth the usual facts: much of Alabama is pocked with poverty and low household incomes; most of the state’s predominantly black areas rank poorly in desirable metrics; and lower-income, majority white areas — such as Wellborn — often sport similarly low rankings, too.
In other words, The Post’s data, culled from U.S. Census databases, don’t tell us anything we didn’t either specifically know or assume.
But there is a message here — and, for us, it revolves around Anniston (and its beleaguered system of public schools) and Alabama (and its skyrocketing costs of a college education).
Education is the kindling for every fire: it teaches skills and knowledge, it opens doors, it creates opportunities. It also rebuilds neighborhoods, increases home values and ushers low-income families into the world of the middle class. Once there, virtually anything is possible.
In most cases, that opportunity follows education. Alabama’s Super ZIPs offer proof. Calhoun County’s low-ranked ZIPs, notably 36201, is the antonym. That’s old news, but to see it on an online map, clickable and researchable, makes you want to slap your forehead and say, well, you know.
In Calhoun County, we can talk about McClellan redevelopment, lower crime rates, and stronger recruiting of jobs and retail. But nothing — nothing — overshadows the need to improve our schools, particularly Anniston’s.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley can circle the globe, as he’s done this week, hob-knobbing with international businesses, and he and the GOP-led state Legislature can tout a slimmed-down government until they’re hoarse. But little, if anything, is more important than making college educations affordable to everyday Alabamians.
This isn’t about ZIP codes and numerical rankings. It’s about improving Anniston, Calhoun County and Alabama. It’s about giving people hope and opportunity. We are who we are, but we can, and must, be better.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.