Parkside School, Fantastic Beasts event
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Credit: Butch Dill/Getty Images

The Fantastic Beasts cast made magic by surprising kids at Alabama's own Hogwarts

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Nov 12, 2018

Professor Severus Snape, voted the “craziest teacher” at school, spent months digging dusty glass bottles from recycling bins to decorate the Slytherin classroom. This Snape, far friendlier and younger than the dour portrayal in J.K. Rowling's novels, has plenty of students cheering for her as she stalks from the room with a flourish of her billowing black cape.

Middle school math teacher Tracey Jones might teach fractions instead of Potions, and there might be a flagpole adorning the grounds rather than a Whomping Willow, but none of that matters. It’s not Hogwarts, but for the students of Parkside School in Baileyton, Alabama, it might as well be.

On November 1, the students at Parkside, ranging from kindergarteners to eighth graders, gathered in the school gymnasium for a very special Wizarding World day won by the school's staff, which has spent several years transforming the school into a magical place to study. SYFY WIRE was on the scene, alongside representatives from Warner Bros. and The Today Show, to capture the magical day of games, prizes, and a surprise visit from the cast of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, and Callum Turner.

The genesis of the event goes back several years. In the spring of 2017, Jones and language arts teacher Jacy Douglas approached Parkside’s principal, Richard Orr, with an idea. What if they converted their classrooms into more open, welcoming environments using the world’s most beloved children’s book series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter? Jones and Douglas had been tossing the idea around for a few years, imagining all the ways they could transform their classrooms using the four Hogwarts houses — Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin — and doing research on alternative learning environments.

Orr, also a fan of the Potter series, immediately approved the request. Throughout summer 2017 and 2018, Jones and Douglas, along with science teacher Karen Moon and history teacher Chrissie Shedd, transformed their classrooms into colorful, Potter-inspired works of art.

Parkside is a Title 1 school in a low-income area in which more than three-quarters of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. There was no money in the school budget for something like this. So with Orr and Superintendent Shane Barnett’s approval in hand, Jones, Douglas, and their co-conspirators not only started fundraising for the effort but dug into their own pockets.

“If this little school… can do something that makes kids excited to be in school, then any school can do it,” Jones said.

Over the course of those two summers, the teachers and other members of the community hit up thrift stores and garage sales, raised money, and came together to create something truly special.

Outside the classrooms themselves, the most eye-catching details are the intricate murals painted by local artist Aaron Sullivan. Using money raised via a local 5k, Sullivan created awe-inspiring murals in the hallways and in each classroom, including portraits of the Hogwarts Express, Rubeus Hagrid, Fluffy the three-headed dog, Aragog the Acromantula, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley speeding through the sky in the Weasley family’s flying car, and more.

Parkside School, Fantastic Beasts event

Credit: Caitlin Busch

By the 2018 fall semester, Parkside’s middle schoolers were curled up on couches in the Ravenclaw reading room, sitting among flowers in the Hufflepuff history room, conducting experiments in the Gryffindor science room, and solving equations in the Slytherin math room.

The teachers say their students have never been more engaged and have never taken such pride in their classrooms before.

“We have students discussing books in class, they’re helping each other more,” Douglas said. “Our rooms are cleaner than they’ve ever been, and it’s not because we work every day to clean our rooms — the kids just take care of it. They’re really proud of it.”

Parkside School, Fantastic Beasts event

Credit: Caitlin Busch

The school’s efforts went viral online in August, earning international press attention and going so far as to catch Potter author J.K. Rowling’s eye. From there, Warner Bros. reached out with an offer to give Parkside a Wizarding World day in conjunction with the upcoming release of the next Potter-inspired adventure, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Students and teachers alike dressed for the part. Alongside Jones’ version of Snape and Moon’s take on Professor McGonagall, other faculty members dressed as crooked Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter, the ever-hateful Dolores Umbridge, flying instructor Madam Hooch, Herbology Professor Pomona Sprout, the Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks, the always-uplifting Luna Lovegood, and many more beloved characters. And, of course, Harry Potter takes abounded among the students, lightning bolt scars and round glasses firmly in place.

Parkside School, Fantastic Beasts event

Credit: Butch Dill/Getty Images

Despite the festivities and the day free from regular classwork, it was, understandably, the visit from some of the world’s biggest stars the kids will remember best. After an initial introduction and tour for the cast, the five actors joined in on games and races with the kids in the gym. Upon his team losing a particularly competitive, chaotic relay game involving broomsticks, Miller called foul and jumped about in faux-outrage, prompting laughter and hugs from many of the kids.

“Everyone will remember the day the movie stars came to Parkside,” Orr said.

Alongside the celebrity selfies and Wizarding World paraphernalia handed out throughout the event was yet another surprise, one that brought tears to many of the adults’ eyes.

With a few words about the importance of education and the amazing efforts Parkside has made for its students, Law handed a giant check for $25,000, courtesy of Warner Bros., to Jones, Douglas, and Moon. Orr said the funds will go straight to buying SMART Boards for the classrooms.

Parkside School, Fantastic Beasts event

Credit: Butch Dill/Getty Images

Parkside was the first stop on the Crimes of Grindelwald cast’s world-spanning premiere tour. Jokes that Baileyton, with its population of 622 people, was on the same itinerary as Paris, London, and New York City abounded, but the cast insists their memories from this event will get them through the inevitable exhaustion of the weeks to come.

“The adrenaline in the room is amazing,” Turner said. “And the love they bring to this, it’s incredible… I wish this was my school!”

Redmayne marveled over the movie-level details the teachers had put in, pointing out the owl cage in the corner of the Gryffindor room and the carefully stacked books outside Ravenclaw’s room.

“We make [these films] in this sort of vacuum and… sometimes you can forget who they’re for,” Redmayne said. “And coming to this school today and seeing those kids’ faces... it makes it all beyond joyous.”

Law — whose parents were both teachers and who finds a joyful kind of irony in now playing one of a generation’s most beloved teachers — said it’s an honor to be involved in such a world-encompassing franchise. “So to also be in a situation like this, where it’s actually had a real grass-roots influence on a community — and kind of turning people’s lives around and changing their lives — is incredibly exciting.”

Miller agrees, saying more schools should be so dedicated to their students. “Why not cater to children’s interests in the way that we educate them?” he asks. “Because with education, the best thing you can do is get kids excited about learning. That’s the most important learning, is learning to love learning. And so let’s set up more Harry Potter and Stars Wars and Lord of the Rings [schools]. Whatever it takes.”

Fantastic Beasts cast, Alabama

Credit: Butch Dill/Getty Images

“We’re a big ol’ family here,” Jones said of Parkside and the Cullman County community. “We love each other and we take care of each other, and our students know that.”

The actors agreed, all of them insisting how welcomed they felt by everyone they met.

“To experience teachers like this who have put their hands in their pockets, given up their own time, and really thought about what they can do to make a difference, to engage and capture their students’ imaginations and encourage them to dream and think — really work out what it is that makes them want to learn, is very, very special,” Law said.

“I’m going to try to stay,” Miller said. “Do one of those cat burglar things and hide in one of those cabinets… scare the hell out of some child.”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald premieres in theaters on November 16.

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