When the pandemic shut down much of the country in March 2020, June Shillito reluctantly kept the Yates Baptist Child Development Center in Durham, North Carolina, open. She was nervous about the health of her staff and families, but she wanted to be able to provide an income for her teachers and serve children of essential workers. Even when her enrollment fell from 52 to 11 children, she was able to pay her staff members because the church affiliated with her center received a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.
Although children have slowly returned to the center, Shillito’s classrooms still aren’t at full capacity. She’s getting by, for now, by cobbling together funds from a second PPP loan, grant money from the state and parent subsidies. “If you don’t have full enrollment, the budget doesn’t work,” Shillito said. “Right now, we’re ok, but that’s because money is being given to us.”
Among 15 states that are currently tracking the number of permanent child care closures, 3 percent of centers and 4 percent of family child care homes, on average, have closed—a percentage that could increase as states update their information and emergency funds run out. (In Oregon, for example, KOIN news recently reported that between April 2019 to April 2021, the state saw a 15 percent decrease in the total number of child care facilities in the state). Still, the Child Care Aware data paint a more optimistic outlook than many expected.
“It is our hope that some relief funds over the past year have helped to prevent the worst from happening in the child care system,” said Lynette M. Fraga, the organization’s CEO, in a statement. “But our research shows that permanent closures are real in many states and have started to have a measurable impact.”
Center operators like Shillito aren’t in the clear, even as the pandemic is seemingly winding down and the economy is improving. The pandemic has done nothing to fix critical problems with child care, including low wages for workers, high tuition and staff retention issues. In Shillito’s community, she says middle-class families can’t afford her center’s rates and low-income families are only able to pay for care with the help of state child care subsidies, which often pay below market rate. Parents who can afford the full cost are “paying the equivalent of a mortgage,” Shillito said. And with all the costs associated with high-quality care, “We can’t afford to pay our teachers a living wage.”
Despite fewer than expected center closures, the pandemic is still having a very real impact on child care supply. Experts and educators are particularly concerned about a few key aspects:
Enrollment: The report by Child Care Aware included data showing that child care attendance was down 32 percent in December 2020. Nationwide, many centers are still struggling to get up to pre-Covid enrollment numbers, possibly due in part to a shift in demand from cities to suburbs. In late May, the owner of a child care center in Delaware said his center’s enrollment was still down 40 percent. In Ohio, a child care center that used to serve up to 100 children a day now serves 20. In Illinois, some centers are reporting that families are still slow to re-enroll their children. In Maine, while some centers are at capacity, others say many parents are looking for part-time care, which isn’t financially viable for center operators.
Staffing: Many centers are also having problems finding qualified staff, meaning that if demand grows, they will be unable to enroll additional children. Open positions abound: 3 percent of jobs created in May were in the child care industry, according to recently published data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One survey of child care center owners in New Hampshire found an additional 2,000 children could be served in centers if staffing was no longer an issue. June Shillito has seen this first hand. In mid-March, she posted an open position “everywhere I can think to advertise.” By early June, the position was still open and she hadn’t seen many viable candidates. “The ones who are applying don’t have the education we need,” Shillito said. A few other applicants never responded when Shillito followed up and one failed to show up for a job interview. The issue is compounded, Shillito said, by rules related to the pandemic that require staff members to stay with one group of children each day, which means she has less flexibility in how to deploy staff.
Shillito hopes her center will get a boost if they are accepted as a provider for Durham’s public pre-K program, which means they would get long-term financial support to provide those classes. She also hopes that with the infusion of federal money, child care centers will be able to raise the minimum wage for teachers and make child care more affordable for parents.
But ultimately, she believes early childhood educators need to be viewed and treated as professionals to truly build back the workforce. “People don’t make money in this position…it doesn’t have a lot of respect or professionalism associated with it,” she said. “If I was in college and someone was asking what I wanted to do in the future, I don’t know if I would do this.”
CLINTON, Miss.—When Kelsi Collins was first given a laptop last year at Clinton High School, she hesitated to change from years of reading textbooks and writing assignments by hand to researching topics and typing papers online. It didn’t help that, after she’d ignored teachers’ warnings to back up her work, her computer crashed and she lost ‘everything’ just nine weeks into the school year.
Still, within a few months, Collins was hooked.
“I use it for absolutely everything,” said Collins, who will start her senior year in August. “I don’t think I could go back to a textbook.”
The partly rural, partly suburban Clinton Public School District, in central Mississippi, is regarded by many districts as a model when it comes to technology use in classrooms. Every student in grades K-12 has an iPad or a laptop, and kids in grades 6-12 have a special backpack for carrying the device home. Enrollment in the district has increased by nearly 300 students since the 2011-12 school year, which some say is due to the allure of the technology. Administrators from other school districts have eagerly studied Clinton to learn how to implement their own digital learning programs.
But Clinton’s success has yet to be replicated to a large degree in the poorest and most rural parts of Mississippi — the “least-wired” state in the country according to a 2011 Census survey. More than half of Mississippians have no Internet at home, and 41 percent have no access to the Internet at all.
In Mississippi, this technology access gap only compounds the state’s most persistent educational problems. In the 2011-12 school year, only 75 percent of students graduated in four years, compared to the national average of 80 percent. After students graduate, they often struggle to find jobs. Nearly20 percent of youth ages 16 to 24 are out of school and not working, the highest rate in the nation.
Advocates say that access to the Internet and technology can close critical information gaps by helping students find college and scholarship information, job applications, and educational resources like study guides and practice tests.
David Conley, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at the University of Oregon says interaction with technology is also crucial to preparing students for the tasks they’ll be expected to complete in postsecondary education.
“Think about what’s going to happen to those young people when they try to go to a college class that expects them to use new technology,” Conley said. “Any type of a problem will stop them in their tracks.”
Uneven access to technology, Conley added, is only widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Nationwide, schools that haven’t yet integrated technology often face a basic problem: TheirInternet connection is too weak and their laptops—if they even have them— are too old to handle whole classrooms of students spending most or even part of their day online.
In 2013 the Obama administration launched a new initiative, calledConnectEd, meant to increase broadband access, train teachers in how to better use technology and use model districts to demonstrate what works. But major obstacles remain, including the enormous costs of bringing more students, especially those in the most disadvantaged schools, online.
“We have some amazing schools and we have a lot of places where you can see this happening now. But we have a tremendous lack of equity,” said Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that helps school districts improve their use of technology. “We have a lot of work to do on this.”
In some cases, schools lack staff members with a knowledge of technology, and many face skepticism among educators, school board members and parents about whether technology can make enough of a difference to make the costs worthwhile.
Some districts in the state are more behind than others. A 2009 audit of the Tate County School District in north Mississippi found that the computers used for a vocational program were running Windows 3.0, a system from 1990.
In the past few years, some districts in the state have cobbled together funds from savings or grants to start programs like Clinton’s that provide a laptop or iPad to each student. This fall, students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade will receive iPads or laptops in the Corinth School District, just south of the Tennessee border. In the Delta town of Clarksdale, the district will use a federal grant to roll out a one-to-one device program and provide technology to students who are behind in school.
In the Appalachian region of the state, which covers northeast Mississippi, some school districts havequalified for non-competitive grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agencythat provides financial support to areas in 13 states. Some districts like Water Valley, just south of Oxford, have used that grant money to buy computers and upgrade bandwidth so students can interact with more technology even though they don’t each have a laptop.
But for many schools in Mississippi, the priority with technology has been preparing for new online tests that will launch in 2015. The tests are aligned to the new Common Core standards, which Mississippi adopted in 2010.
Schools in Mississippi have been underfunded by the state by more than $1 billion over the past six years, which means many have struggled to buy basic supplies like pencils and paper while alsoupgrading bandwidth and computer labs. For many schools, it has been a strain on budgets to buy enough laptops for testing, and districts that do not have a surplus of funds or grant money have few options to expand technology.
In 2011 in Clinton, the district realized it would take a month for all its students to take the new online tests using the limited technology they had. Kameron Ball, director of technology for the Clinton Public School District, said that spreading the testing out across a month would give students who tested later more time to prepare than their peers, “just because the district didn’t have the technology.”
But Ball hesitated to adopt a “bring your own device” program, which has been embraced by some school districts across the country, allowing students to bring their own phone or tablet to school to use during lessons.
“Asking parents to add an iPad to their supply list didn’t seem equitable,” Ball said. “It just made sense to make sure all of our students received the same device.”
So the district bought nearly 2,700 laptops and about 2,500 iPads for students. It took years of preparation and planning to roll out the digital program. The district used savings and money from alocal millage rate increase to fund the program, which cost more than $4 million.
More than 4,600 students attend Clinton’s schools, and about 45 percent of them receive free- or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.
A team of administrators from Clinton visited a successful technology program in North Carolina, and then began to transition teachers from desktop computers to Apple laptops. All teachers received a laptop and had to be trained in the new technology, and the district held meetings throughout the community to invest parents in the idea. The district even hired several technology specialists. “I stole them from the Apple store,” Ball said with a smile.
While there’s no definitive evidence that technology improves suspension rates or behavior, Ball has noticed a positive change in student behavior since they received the technology. Suspensions in grades 6-12 decreased by nearly 30 percent in the first year of the program, and referrals to the office dropped as well.
Conley from the University of Oregon cautions that as schools roll out more technology, they need to ensure that it is used to help students be self-sufficient and productive.
“If you go to the average school the differences are often so great from classroom to classroom,” Conley said. While some teachers embrace it, Conley said that other teachers shy away from it or don’t really know how to use it within their classroom.
And even as districts in Mississippi add more technology, there’s no guarantee that it will improve education in the state. Research on the benefits of technology in classrooms is mixed, although some studies have found that using computers boosts student learning. A 2011 study found that technology can help students learn, although it tends to be more effective when technology supports student learning rather than directly delivering content or instruction.
Students at Clinton High School say that in most classes, they use the laptops to do research and type up reports and projects. In a biology class, students read the textbook online and complete interactive activities based on the material they’ve learned. About 40 percent of the textbooks used in the district are now digital or online, and the high school also adopted an online program that allows students to submit their work to their teachers and receive feedback.
Genesis Johnson, a 15-year-old at Clinton High School, said the computers have taught students more responsibility and self-discipline, and introduced them to basic Internet functions, like sharing documents on Google Drive, and using email. (Each student received a school email account.) “In elementary school they’re preparing you for junior high, in junior high they’re preparing you for high school,” Johnson said. “In high school you think you’re getting prepared for college, but you’re really not. Until you get those computers.”
A cautious approach in Greenville
The Delta town of Greenville overlooks the Mississippi river, nearly two hours northwest of Clinton. By many accounts, the Greenville Public School District’s precarious financial status makes it an unlikely early adopter of a technology program like Clinton’s. More than 93 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, and four of the district’s 10 schools received a failing grade from the state in the 2011-12 school year. Only about 21 percent of the district’s revenue comes from local sources, meaning the district must rely on federal aid or state aid to fund new initiatives.
But the poverty level made it even more imperative to start a technology program, said Leeson Taylor, superintendent of the Greenville Public School District. “We’re trying to be proactive and act on behalf of our students,” Taylor said.
Before he was superintendent, Taylor worked in the district’s federal programs division, where he helped the district find ways to be frugal and save money for the program. The district has used reserve money and federal Title I funding, which it receives for low-income students, to fund its new program. This fall, all students in sixth through twelfth grade will receive an iPad, while younger students will use iPads on carts in each classroom.
Administrators in Greenville have been wary of moving too fast with their program. After hearing about a district in another state where kids were robbed after receiving digital devices from schools, they delayed rollout until they could find volunteers to monitor children as they walked home after school. They also took note of Los Angeles Unified School District, which had to put a halt to their $1 billion iPad plan after a disastrous rollout where kids quickly figured out how to hack security settings and access non-educational content online.
Taylor said that some parents were skeptical of giving children such an expensive item, and not every teacher was enthusiastic about the change. “There are some model classrooms,” Taylor said, but also some classrooms where teachers had to be dragged “kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”
One of the district’s teachers who has embraced technology is Reginald Forte, a fifth grade teacher at Em Boyd Elementary who describes himself as “a tech person.” Forte said that he uses iPads most in math, science, and social studies to expand the amount and quality of information students can use.
“They have direct access to the latest information,” Forte said. “I may not know it, but they can go right to it.”
On one of the final weeks of school this spring, students in Forte’s class were working in groups on an end-of-year project. At a cluster of desks in the front of the room, fifth-graders Kiara McPherson and Jeremiah Hilliard were bent over iPads, searching through pictures on the Internet.
They were preparing a digital presentation about the properties of light, which they would later have to present to the class. Kiara clicked on a picture of a triangle prism and slid her iPad over to Jeremiah’s desk.
“Jeremiah, do you like this picture? It’s using refraction,” she said.
Jeremiah examined the picture closely. “Yes.”
With a flurry of motion, Kiara quickly downloaded the image, cropped the picture, and dragged it into the digital presentation she and Jeremiah were creating.
One of the goals of technology is to engage students, or make them more excited about learning, said Taylor, as he stepped into Forte’s class to watch the students’ presentations. “A lot of our kids are below the federal poverty level,” he added. “If we don’t build those experiences for them, then a lot of them will not have those experiences.”
This story also appeared as a radio piece for Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the murders of three young civil rights workers in Neshoba County. Yet 50 years later, many students and teachers say that Mississippi schools aren’t teaching about it. Jackie Mader visited a summer program that’s attempting to fill that gap.
PHILADELPHIA, Miss.—Twenty-seven teenagers from across Mississippi piled off a tour bus on Rock Cut road.
It’s 91 degrees. The sun is blazing.
Fifty years ago, three young civil rights workers were murdered here by the Ku Klux Klan. The nation was transfixed by these murders and many say they provided the impetus to push the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress.
But most of the teenagers on today’s tour say they knew nothing about this history.
“I didn’t know Mississippi was that violent, I been in Mississippi my whole life and I never knew something like this went on,” said 15-year-old Jayla Mondy, who is one of the participants on the bus tour.
The tour is part of a nine-day summer program run by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. The goal is to teach students about civil rights history along with providing leadership training. Several teenagers on the tour say school lessons on the civil rights era were superficial, covering only “Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, the basic stories.”
In 2006, Mississippi was one of the first states to make teaching civil rights a legal requirement from kindergarten through 12th grade. In 2011, the state spelled out the topics that should be taught. That included a “Mississippi Studies” class usually taught in 8th or 9th grade, where students are supposed to learn about Freedom Summer.
“I didn’t know Mississippi was that violent, I been in Mississippi my whole life and I never knew something like this went on,” Jayla Mondy, high school student.
Susan Glisson, the executive director of the William Winter Institute, says some schools may not be teaching it. “In Mississippi specifically, we’re a locally controlled state in terms of education so even though the state mandates teaching civil rights, it’s up to the local schools to implement it,” Glisson said. “And if teachers aren’t properly trained or they feel like they need to spend a lot of time teaching to the test, it’s hard to find that space.”
In Neshoba County, some students say they are not learning much about the infamous race crime that took place here. To fix that, residents are leading the charge to teach students about their past. The Neshoba Youth Coalition has been studying civil rights in afterschool meetings. Twenty-one year old Shamiski Collier joined the Neshoba Youth Coalition as a teenager. Now, she’s a mentor for students in the William Winter Institute program.
Collier says lessons at her school didn’t talk much about events in Mississippi.
“In civil rights history in school, we covered Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, of course Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, occasionally Eli Whitney. As far as the three civil rights workers who were killed here in Neshoba County, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, we don’t mention those hardly at all,” Collier said.
Collier says residents in the town are still hesitant to discuss the past. Schools are still mostly segregated. The majority of white kids attend public schools out of town while most black students attend the public schools in town. Several times vandals have torn down and stolen a marker commemorating the deaths of civil rights workers.
Collier says ongoing tensions are the reason why Freedom Summer isn’t taught in the schools. “When you have people who live in a town with such bad history, in a sense you don’t want to talk about it. You just kind of want to get over it, you want to move on. That’s why it’s not talked about.”
The Winter Institute has been offering the summer program since 2010, and plans to keep it going. But it’s only reaching a few dozen kids a year. This year, the institute plans to work with schools to add lessons on civil rights to curriculums throughout the state.
This story also appeared on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Each summer, millions of Mississippi’s children rely on the federal Summer Food Service Program to provide up to two nutritious meals a day. It’s a small solution to a larger problem in Mississippi, where many of the most rural parts of the state lack access to healthy foods. Jackie Mader reports on the challenges and efforts to provide food to the state’s most vulnerable children.
The town of Rolling Fork is nestled off Highway 61, 11 miles east of the Mississippi River. It’s the home of blues singer Muddy Waters, and the site of a Civil War battle.
And like many parts of the Delta, it’s also a food desert, a region where residents lack access to healthy, fresh and affordable foods.
“The most common foods that we have around here as far as fast foods, fried foods. We do not have a lot of access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Linda McGee, the food services director for the South Delta School District in Rolling Fork.
McGee says that the town’s two small grocery stores are too expensive and lack healthy foods for the 2,000 residents, whose median income is just $28,000 a year. On a recent afternoon, a pineapple was selling for more than six dollars. McGee says that for lower prices, residents have to drive 39 miles north to Greenville, or 44 miles south to Vicksburg. That’s particularly hard for the16 percent of adults who are unemployed.
“If you’re unemployed surely you don’t have a cars that you’re able to go that distance and get fresh fruits and vegetables,” McGee said.
Poverty is so high here that 97 percent of the kids get free or reduced price meals at school. And in the summertime, access to nutritious meals becomes an even bigger problem.
That’s where the federal Summer Food Service Program comes in. It’s been around for more than 35 years, but it reaches only a fraction of the students who get school lunches during the year. This year, there’s a new federal push to expand it, and Mississippi’s one of six states that’s been targeted.
Thirty-five miles northeast in Greenwood, several kids are taking advantage of the summer meals at a local elementary school. The menu today consists of hamburgers, french fries, apples, and milk. The students say they normally eat “junk” during the summer, like “hot chips, pickles and juices, stuff like that.”
For years, Mississippi has struggled to reach low-income kids during the summer. Last July, fewer than 6 percent of the state’s low-income kids received meals through the federal program.
Yvette Totten, who oversees the five meal sites in Greenwood, says many families don’t know they’re available, and some kids don’t have transportation to get to a meal site.
“Many of my kids are walk-ups. And then we have summer programs within the school district, extended school. So at about each school we have somewhere between 60 and 100 kids who come every day so we know they’re going to go through the program and eat.”
Totten says she’s trying to reach more parents through radio ads, Facebook posts, and a kickoff event.
With the new statewide push, Mississippi predicts it will serve two million meals to kids in Mississippi this summer. That’s a 12 percent increase from last year. But Lenora Phillips, director of Mississippi’s Summer Food Service Program says it’s been hard to find places to run new meal sites.
“One of our challenges is finding viable sponsors, and what I mean by viable is someone who understand how to run the program,” Phillips said. “Also, getting people to continue the program the whole summer long, and that’s been a big challenge throughout the state of Mississippi.”
Budget cuts are another problem. This year, Greenwood had to cut the newspaper ads that it used to run to promote the summer meals. Even with the summer program, there’s a giant meal gap. Mississippi’s summer feeding program will continue in most locations through mid-July. School doesn’t start until early or mid-August.
McCOMB, Miss.—It wasn’t until his senior year of high school that Zachary Schilling learned of the racist violence that had transpired in his south Mississippi city during the 1960’s. In a civil rights elective course at McComb High School, he and his classmates were stunned by stories of bombings, lynchings and a student walkout. “Everybody was like, ‘There’s no way that happened here,’ ” Schilling said on a recent spring morning.
Yet McComb was known as ‘the bombing capital of the world’ during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964, as scores of white northerners arrived to launch a black voter registration drive and establish schools.
And the town had already seen years of conflict. In 1961, black students walked out of their high school to protest a student’s expulsion for participation in civil rights efforts. The same year, Herbert Lee, a black farmer and father of nine, was murdered just outside McComb for helping blacks register to vote.
Today’s McComb students say they welcome the jarring history lessons, finding they offer important context for life today. But their experience is unusual. While state law requires that civil rights lessons be taught in every grade, teachers and students across Mississippi say that lessons on the state’s past are uneven at best and sometimes nonexistent.
Although Mississippi became one of the first states to make civil rights education mandatory in schools, starting in 2011, the state offers no specific training in it for teachers, and doesn’t track how much or how little civil rights education is being taught.
Teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade are required to teach various civil rights and human rights topics, including lessons about national leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and cases likeBrown v. Board of Education. Part of the requirement is a secondary-level Mississippi Studies class, which is based on state standards that delve into historical figures like voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and events like the death of three young civil rights workers in Neshoba County during Freedom Summer.
But the state’s locally-controlled districts have autonomy to choose their own methods of teaching the standards, and there’s no way to know whether students have learned the material, except for a few questions on the state’s high school history exam.
“There really are mixed messages there,” said Maureen Costello from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based research and advocacy organization that focuses on combating racism and discrimination. “On one hand, the state department of education is saying ‘we want you to teach about civil rights;’ on the other hand, ‘we have local control so we can’t really make you do it.’ ”
This spring, the SPLC published a study that rated the subject matter in Mississippi’s standards as poorer than that of all southern states except Arkansas. “More work should be done to set appropriate and high expectations in a state whose progress in education has repeatedly attracted national attention,’’ the SLPC report stated.
Why civil rights education matters
Decades of segregation and second-class citizenship for the state’s blacks left their mark in the poverty and educational woes that still plague Mississippi.
In the 20 years following the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared it unconstitutional to have separate public schools for black and white students, many white families fled to newly created private schools that became known as “segregation academies.” Today, at least thirty-five of those schools still exist with student populations that are at least 98 percent white. According to federal data, nearly 34,000 white students attended private schools in Mississippi in the 2011-12 school year, compared to about 3,600 black students.
Scattered attempts to teach about the civil rights movement did emerge, over the decades. In 2006, the bill requiring civil rights classes in all grades was signed into law — but even then, the chairman of the House Education Committee, John Moore (R-Brandon), proposed legislation to repeal it every year until 2011.
Now, most Mississippi educators agree that the civil rights movement holds important lessons for all students – not only in local history, but also in civics.
“The civil rights movement is our greatest case study of using the strategies of citizenship to achieve rights and to address wrongs,” said Costello, director of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project, which provides resources to teachers. “It’s not just history, it’s essentially civic education.”
Indeed, the state standards call for students to “acquire a working knowledge of tactics engaged by civil rights activists to achieve social change.”
Jacqueline Byrd Martin, a McComb civil rights activist who, in 2007, helped create the elective for seniors at the predominantly black high school, said she sees another important value in teaching McComb’s children about that era.
“If these children knew their history and the things that people in their families have truly accomplished, it would give them a sense of pride,” Martin said. “It would help their self-esteem and self -confidence.”
Civil rights lessons not widely taught
Whatever the merits of learning about the civil rights movement, teachers across the state say they often feel inadequately prepared to teach this. The state provides some resources but not a complete curriculum, leaving it up to the individual school districts. In recent years, teacher training on the topic has been hit-or-miss, with the state relying on educational groups and nonprofits to fill the gap.
And the state doesn’t track whether schools are teaching anything beyond the few topics covered on the high school history exam. In previous years, questions about civil rights have made up less than 15 percent of the 70-question history exam, said Chauncey Spears, who oversees social studies instruction for the state.
The local control and lack of accountability are the reasons Mississippi’s standards were rated poorly by the SPLC, said Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation, a non-profit based at the University of Mississippi that wrote the bill that made civil rights education mandatory. “I don’t agree with [the score],” Glisson said. “But I understand their reasoning.”
There’s no shortage of lessons to teach on the civil rights era in Mississippi, which in the early 1960s was the most “racially restrictive state,” according to historian Neil McMillen. Gov. Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist, vowed to keep blacks and whites separate. Ku Klux Klansmen relied on lynchings, bombings, and assaults to retaliate against blacks in McComb and elsewhere who were part of the movement.
“It was a scary time; you knew that people were fighting for justice, but until I went to Mississippi [in 1966] I didn’t realize what that meant,’’ said Ron Walker, executive director of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, known as COSEBOC.
Walker recalls feeling terrified when, at the urging of his then teacher, the civil rights icon and Freedom Ride organizer James Farmer, he went with fellow students to “Bloody Belzoni,’’ in the Delta to distribute food to needy families.
By that time, Mississippi was becoming an example of how an intense media glare, combined with both local and national efforts, could foster positive change. Civil rights activists and workers used sit-ins, demonstrations, and protests to attain equal rights for black citizens and by 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
Glisson from the William Winter Institute said that one of the goals of civil rights education is to ensure that“students understand the history of race and racism in our state and its continuing legacies, so that injustices like the  Neshoba murders never happen again.”
But three years after the launch of mandatory standards, teachers say students still have a largely cursory knowledge of civil rights events.
Seniors “don’t know a lot” about civil rights when they get to her class, said McComb High School teacher Vickie Malone, whose “Local Cultures” elective class examines McComb’s role in the civil rights movement. Despite learning about civil rights in middle school, she said, “they have no idea about the rich history they trample on every day when they walk through the neighborhoods.”
And classes like hers, focused specifically on local events and historical figures, are rare. Spears, from the department of education, said the state doesn’t know how many others may exist, since the flexibility of a “Local Cultures” course like McComb’s “makes it difficult to say how many districts are using this course to focus specifically on the civil rights history of their community.”
Students in Malone’s class say the course has been invaluable; it wasn’t until they took it that they realized how little they knew about their hometown and the movement.
Lajasmine Brooks, an 18-year-old senior, said she had “only learned things on Martin Luther King, Jr., and black history month,’’ growing up. “It wasn’t really a deep discussion.”
Brooks believes lessons need to start earlier, and go beyond Rosa Parks and Rev. King. “It should be taught early on, and not by just giving us crayons and a coloring book of the ‘big names,’” she said.
Uncomfortable racial discussions
Even with state-mandated standards, experts say, there are many reasons why civil rights may be taught poorly, or not at all.
Nationwide, during the 2011-12 school year, more than 87 percent of teachers in the nation’s public schools were white; fewer than 7 percent were black, according to federal data. In Mississippi, 73 percent of teachers are white and 25 percent are black.
The divide can create challenges in the classroom, Costello said, because “most white people have not been raised to talk about race comfortably,’’ and others want to protect black students from the ugly past.
Teaching civil rights sometimes “conflicts with that basic teacher directive, which is ‘only fill the bucket of confidence…build positive experiences,’ ” Costello said.
In the Neshoba County town of Philadelphia, where members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers, curriculum coordinator Lee Ann Fulton said some lessons contain material that may not be suitable for younger students.
“We have to be real careful to make sure that the children have the capacity to understand,” Fulton said. “It’s a sensitive topic and you have to be very careful with how you handle it.”
Fulton said teachers submit lesson plans to their principals so schools can ensure the curriculum is being taught. By eighth grade, many students have heard a lot, Fulton said, but it may not all be factually correct.
“A lot of them have formed opinions based upon things they’ve heard, maybe from their family,” Fulton said. “We want to teach children the facts. So we have to make sure teachers are teaching the facts, not their opinion.”
In Mississippi, teacher training on civil rights education varies widely by district. Initially, non-profits and Jackson State University helped train teachers, but there is no continuing program, and the state does not do any of its own training. Glisson from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation said that the lack of training and support for teachers severely limits the amount of instruction students receive in civil rights. “We need a much more comprehensive and continuing commitment to training,” Glisson said.
Malone, who has also helped create civil rights lessons for younger grades in McComb schools, said that in an era of standardized math and language arts testing, topics like civil rights and social studies can get lost.
“Those lessons have not consistently been able to be taught,” Malone said. “There’s a whole lot of other things that we have to teach.”
To help teachers, several groups, like the Mississippi Historical Society and the national non-profit Teaching For Change, have created and published online lesson plans or resources. McComb’s elective class regularly interviews civil rights figures and publishes the videos online for anyone to use.
Juantario Babon, one of Malone’s students, said those video interviews have been helpful in better understanding Mississippi’s past.
“In school, we’re going to learn what’s in the book and what the person who wrote the book put in the book,” Babon said. “It’s good to hear from people who have a first-person view, and the truth.”
Several of Malone’s students said that the class has been helpful in understanding racism they say is still common today.
On a recent morning, 11 of her students sat in a semi-circle, sharing experiences with racism. One black student, who works at a fast food restaurant, said when she holds her hand out to take money from customers, some older customers put the money on the counter instead of in her hand.
“Why do you think they do that?” Malone asked the student.
“I don’t know,” the student responded. “Maybe they think I’m dirty.”
“It’s not any more right, but they’re a product of their time period,” another student responded.
A third nodded in agreement. “You feel sorry for them.”
Some students say racial relations could be better in the first place if more kids learned about historic tensions between black and whites at an earlier age.
“I think we would have fewer racial issues if it were taught early on,” said 18-year-old Caira Ellis.
And in McComb, that could help lessen the racism that lives on in small, daily interactions. “It’s not anyone throwing a bomb at your house,” Ellis said. “But it’s there.”
For the past few years, the new nationwide Common Core state standards have been slowly rolling out in Florida’s schools. Next year, all schools will fully implement the standards, which lay out what students are expected to learn in reading and math in kindergarten through twelfth grade. It’s led to big changes for teachers, many of whom are throwing out lesson plans and cherished writing assignments and learning new ways to teach the basics, like multiplication. The Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader visited one rural panhandle elementary school to see how the standards are changing writing instruction. You can hear the report below.
Students in Laurie Langford’s second grade classroom are reading about public sector jobs. As the students work together, Langford repeats a phrase that has become increasingly common in her classroom. “Go back to your article, OK? Look in the text. Find your evidence,” Langford said.
In 2011, when this elementary school in rural West Defuniak adopted the new Common Core standards, many teachers revamped their lessons to phase out the creative writing that is typically taught in the early years of elementary school. Instead, even in the youngest grades, teachers are focusing on evidence-based writing.
Last year, Langford says she focused more on ‘fun’ writing assignments. “Last year I did a cute writing on… ‘just as my mom opened the oven for thanksgiving dinner, the turkey popped out and…’ And the kids went on with it,” Langford said. “And it was really cute and really fun, and we threw it in a center this year, but we are not going to spend all week writing about a turkey running away.”
At the opposite end of the school, Casi Adkinson’s third-graders are also in the midst of a writing lesson. The class is spending the week reading a non-fiction story about a girl named Mary Anning who discovered a dinosaur fossil in England in the early 1800’s. Today, the students are asked to write about how that discovery changed what scientists knew about dinosaurs and the earth’s history.
Eight-year-old Hannah has already filled up half a page, but it is somewhat off topic.
“I think that it was not nice of the scientists to try to take credit from what she had found and discovered,” Hannah said. “And I don’t think it’s fair that girls got pushed out of everything. And I don’t think that’s fair as a girl myself.”
Adkinson says that students sometimes get overwhelmed by all the information in a text. She jumps in to redirect Hannah.
“Make sure you give the reasons why it changed earth’s history, OK?”
Hannah nodded. “OK.”
Adkinson says the new style of writing is the type of writing students will have to do in college and in careers. It gets them thinking deeper about what they’ve read. And compared to some creative writing assignments, she says this kind of non-fiction writing can level the playing field. “If you were to ask students to write about their favorite vacation, we have to be honest that every child in your room hasn’t necessarily gone on a vacation before,” she said. “Where as if you’re responding to the text, you all read the same text so they all have the equal amount of information they can provide.”
But it also comes with its challenges. The third graders are used to the old standards, where they would mostly write creative stories or explain steps in a process, like how to make a birthday cake. It can also be hard for students to find the balance between quoting parts of the story, and copying the story line by line. “That’s where we run into, you know, innocent plagiarism at a young age, which even this early you have to start talking to them about how they can’t use someone else’s work as their own,” Adkinson said.
Both Adkinson and second grade teacher Langford know that there’s nothing in the new Common Core standards that is telling teachers to get rid of creative writing. It’s just that the new standards aren’t emphasizing it. And, Adkinson says that it can be tough to find the time to do it all. “I do think it’s very important to not take that creativity away from them, and I don’t think that this Common Core writing is in any way trying to do that,” she said. “I think it’s just that we’re, as teachers having to really receive training and guidance on how to teach it and include that creative writing opinion in there.”
Writing ability will soon take on more importance in Florida’s end-of-grade exams. Unlike the old standards where kids were tested on writing in grades four, eight, and ten, new Common Core aligned tests will include writing each year.
ABERDEEN, Miss.— In the 23 years that Jennifer Calvert has offered preschool for 4-year-olds in this rural town, she has never filled a classroom. Last year, just six students signed up, even though Calvert has room for 19 in her bright, spacious child care center.
Calvert said that many families wanted their children in pre-kindergarten, but simply couldn’t pay the tuition.
“Most of my parents are single parents. Many single parents cannot afford $80 a week,” Calvert said on a recent afternoon at ABC Pre-School & Nursery Inc., as children practiced writing letters with a teacher’s help and played in carefully labeled areas of the room, packed with toys, books and dress-up clothing.
There is good news ahead for Calvert, who expects a packed classroom for the first time ever in August as part of Mississippi’s first foray into state-funded preschool.
Calvert and a smattering of local school districts, child care centers, and Head Start programs will all benefit from the addition of $3 million in state grants approved by the legislature. The money will serve nearly two-dozen school districts this year and reach an estimated 2,400 4-year-olds during the next two and a half years, according to Robin Lemonis, director of early childhood, literacy, and dyslexia for the Mississippi Department of Education. That’s fewer than 6 percent of the state’s population of 4-year-olds.
Calvert will be able to lower tuition, train teachers in reading and assessments and outfit her classroom with an electronic whiteboard and a new, touchscreen computer. The long awaited state funds will also help buy materials and supplies, improve teacher quality, and jump start education for more children in Mississippi’s cash-strapped public schools, who too often start kindergarten behind – and stay behind.
“This is, at best, a start. That’s about all you can say. All the other states are putting in substantially more money.” — Steve Suitts, vice president, Southern Education Foundation.
Still, the money won’t solve the massive need for early learning in Mississippi, until recently the only state in the south with no publicly funded pre-K. Nine other U.S. states do not fund pre-K.
“This is, at best, a start. That’s about all you can say,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation. “All the other states are putting in substantially more money.”
Only about half of low-income 3 and 4 year olds in the Magnolia state are enrolled in preschool, and some 35 percent of children live in poverty – the highest percentage in the nation. Year after year, teachers say, far too many children come to kindergarten unprepared. Some 71 percent of state teachers surveyed recently had at least one child repeating kindergarten; 41 percent said their children weren’t able to identify colors and shapes or hold a crayon, according to Mississippi Kids Count, which collects state data and statistics.
National studies illustrate why a lack of early education is a crisis in Mississippi. Fewer than half of poor children in the U.S. are considered ready for school at age five, compared with 75 percent of their moderate and high-income peers.
A 2013 study by Stanford University found that low-income students who do not attend preschool have already lost 1,400 hours of valuable learning time.
A growing body of research has found that high quality pre-K programs can boost reading and math scores, teaching children important classroom skills like how to raise their hands and pay attention. For years, parents and Mississippi education advocates have fought for such benefits, battling a recalcitrant state legislature.
“All the basic skills that you need to participate in a democratic society, quite frankly, happen in the early years,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington D.C
The earliest years of a child’s life are critical for brain development; Allvin said; if children are not in high-quality learning environments during those years, “you miss this incredibly window of opportunity that you never get back.”
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has taken a cautious approach to pre-K; in a report released in January, Bryant said that he does not support mandatory pre-K, but is supportive of early learning programs that can prove positive outcomes. “The ultimate responsibility for a child’s earliest education rests with his or her parents and guardians,” Bryant said.
Mississippi’s recent modest investment comes at a time of increased focus on quality early childhood education nationally. In 2013, the Obama Administration proposed a $75 billion program that would provide pre-K to more than 330,000 low and moderate-income 4-year-olds in America.
The first phase of Mississippi’s new program is a small scale investment of just $3 million in matching funds, and it requires programs to meet certain requirements – like hiring qualified teachers and serving at least one meal a day that meet federal nutrition guidelines. They also must raise half of their operating costs on their own.
After advocates and others argued that the money would not go far enough, lawmakers proposedlegislation that would have increased the second phase of the pre-K rollout from a maximum of $16 million dollars to at least $20 million.
The funding would have served more than 7,000 children, but the legislation died in committee.
There are plenty of programs for 4-year-olds that need money to open or expand, said Robin Lemonis.
Many were turned away; 19 collaborative groups that hoped to expand their programs were denied funding.
“[Legislators] are aware that the three million that was appropriated fell very short of what the community or the state needs were,” Lemonis said.
Some legislators say they are opposed to spending more money on pre-K programs that they believe may not have long-term benefits. They often cite a controversial Head Start study released in December that found that by the end of first grade, positive effects of the pre-K program had mostly disappeared.
“I will not apologize for voting against a bill that grows government programs below kindergarten in a state that is desperately trying to manage an education budget which already consumes around sixty percent of the entire state budget,” Mississippi State Sen. Angela Hill (R-Picayune) said, defending her vote against state-funded pre-K last year in a written statement.
Yet parents of pre-K students say the programs are a critical part of preparing their children, especially in the poorest regions of Mississippi.
In Indianola, a rural Delta town where 49 percent of children under 5 live in poverty, Jessica Butler says the pre-K program at Spencer’s Kiddieland Day Care greatly improved her 4-year-old daughter Savannah’s social and academic skills.
“Savannah has mastered the alphabet and can identify the numbers 1-10. Her vocabulary is humongous,” Butler said. “It’s almost like I have a five or six-year-old, because her skills have gone above and beyond.”
The legislature’s refusal to prioritize pre-K has left many programs in limbo, as teachers and parents question how long new pre-K classes will survive.
“A constant fear is that this money is going to run out after two years,” said Meghan Tooke, director of the Tallahatchie Early Learning Alliance in the Delta. “There’s teachers that want to teach pre-K, but they worry that when the money runs out in two years, they’re not going to have a job to go back to.”
For some, the money will mark the first time a district has been able to offer pre-K at all.
That’s the case in the Petal School District just east of Hattiesburg, along with the Prentiss County School District about 30 miles north of Tupelo.
In others, the grant money is being used to expand local programs in surrounding areas. Corinth School District has used federal money to fund five pre-K classrooms for the past two years.
Corinth School District Superintendent Lee Childress said the district will now help fund Prentiss and Alcorn’s programs – as well as several private child care centers that will feed into them.
“We’re that committed to pre-K education,” Childress said.
In McComb, the district will help five private child care centers improve the quality of their classrooms. The funding will buy computers and materials, and will also pay for five teachers.
“Our thinking is that this might impact how those day cares begin to educate children,” said Cedrick Ellis, superintendent of the McComb School District, which already has a pre-K classroom.
Ellis said that the private centers often don’t have the staff or funding to provide teacher training or purchase curriculum. By helping these centers, Ellis said it will “strengthen the kindergarten students we have coming to us.”
Advocates like Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, say including child care centers in the program is essential because 33 percent of children under 6 in Mississippi attend a home based, family run center – in many cases, with untrained, uncertified teachers.
Why Mississippi Lags Behind
Already, Mississippi’s investment in pre-K is significantly less than that of other southern states. Louisiana has funded preschool for over 25 years; 96 percent of school districts offer a state-funded program. About one-third of all four-year-olds were enrolled in a state pre-K program in the 2011-12 school year.
In Georgia, nearly 60 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in state funded pre-K. In Tennessee, 22 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in a state program, and low-income children receive priority.
In recent years, state officials have maintained Mississippi doesn’t have money for early childhood education. Suitts of the Southern Education Foundation disagrees, noting that a joint committee budget left $548 million in state funds unallocated that could be used for education.
“It’s not that the money isn’t there, it’s the priority,” said Suitts, whose foundation pushes for educational excellence and equity in the South. “Mississippi doesn’t need anything in the way of new revenue … it needs a commitment.”
The state has already lost out on several chances for federal funding. In December, Mississippi missed out on receiving a portion of $280 million available to states through the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. The six states that won were awarded between $36 million and $51 million to expand early learning programs.
Mississippi’s application ranked 12th out of 17 applicants, an improvement from its ranking of 35th out of 37 the year before. A reviewer noted that the state’s “financial investment over the past five years did not provide clear evidence of a strong commitment to early learning and development programs.”
Existing pre-K programs say it’s a struggle to improve quality without spending money.
“There’s a lot that goes into a space and comfortable environment for small children that you don’t even realize until you’re in it,” said Meghan Tooke of the Tallahatchie Early Learning Alliance, which will use $110,000 in grant money to start one pre-K classroom in each of the district’s two elementary schools and to support 10 pre-K classrooms at local Head Start centers and private childcare facilities.
“We may have to replace bookshelves that are too tall to really be safe, increase the number of books and toys, and the quality of the carpet,” Tooke said. “It’s so, so expensive.”
A 2008 report estimated that running a high quality pre-K program could cost as much as $9,076 per child each year. Mississippi’s pre-K law calls for just $4,300 per child for a full day program, with the pre-K program providing half of that amount.
Many of the costs come from creating a quality pre-K environment. In Mississippi, childcare centers must be licensed to be eligible for the pre-K grant. Burnett says it can cost thousands of dollars to upgrade centers to meet the extensive list of standards.
“Nobody is disputing that those environments need to be improved but the problem is there isn’t any money to help centers cover those costs,” Burnett said.
Jennifer Calvert was able to improve her program when the private, Amory-based Gilmore Foundation stepped in and provided her center with a curriculum, a computer, and training for teachers.
Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, said the additional state money will help the foundation pay benefits for pre-K teachers and keep local child care centers focused on academics, with quality teachers.
“The best thing about the grant is it allows all of us to raise the bar,” Spreitler said. “We have to make sure our children are entering kindergarten ready to learn. That’s going to be a tough issue for this state.”
HAZLEHURST, Miss. — When the state took control of the Hazlehurst City school district in 2008, the small rural district was in chaos and suffering from abysmal academic performance. Student folders had gaps where grades and attendance records should have been. District personnel reports listed one employee as holding five different positions, including assistant superintendent, transportation director, and athletic director. The state received complaints of nepotism, favoritism and harassment.
Nearly six years later, the district is one of three in Mississippi returning to local control. Hazlehurst has shown some academic improvements. Last year, the pass rate on the high school algebra exam was 77 percent, up from only 14% before the takeover. More than 75 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or advanced on the math exam, a big change from just 9% in 2008.
But some scores still linger far below the state average. Only about 21 percent of fifth-grade students scored proficient or advanced on math in 2013. A third of sixth graders passed the reading exam. A 2011 judicial brief described out-of-control classrooms, incidents where students engaged in sexual activity on campus, and student violence toward teachers.
Hazlehurst’s inconsistent and often lackluster results throw a spotlight on how difficult it is for a state to take over far-flung school districts. They also raise the question of whether it is even worthwhile, particularly in rural districts where resources are limited and plans are ill defined. In Mississippi, and nationwide, the results clearly are mixed over whether takeovers work.
In fact, some states, like Tennessee and Louisiana, are putting failing schools in a separate statewide district and handing them over to charter school operators or outside organizations. Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that focuses on education reform research, said this gives schools more autonomy to make drastic changes. “There are states now that are saying, ‘Hey, maybe the fundamental problem is the district structure itself,’” Smarick said.
Mississippi District Takeovers
North Panola, 1996-1997
Oktibbeha County, 1997-2002
North Bolivar, 2005-2006
Holmes County, 2006-2007
Jefferson Davis County, 2007-2009
North Panola, 2008- Present*
Indianola 2009- Present
Tate County 2009-Present
Sunflower County 2010-Present
Okolona School District 2010-12
Oktibbeha County, 2012-Present
Leflore County, 2013 – Present
Claiborne County, 2013- Present
Scott County, 2014- Present
A 2004 report from the Education Commission of the States found that nationally, takeovers tend to improve administrative and financial practices but have less of an effect on classroom instruction. Academic performance when a district is under state control is usually mixed, the report concluded, with increases in some areas, and decreases in others. “The bottom line is that state takeovers, for the most part, have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance, as is necessary in many of the school districts that are taken over,” the report concluded.
A decade later, Mississippi is one of many states struggling to understand when the state should intervene — and when to pull out.
For years, Mississippi has ranked below all other states in standardized test performance. Last year, only 26 percent of fourth-grade students were proficient in math, compared to the national average of 41 percent. In the 2010-11 school year, only 63 percent of Mississippi’s students graduated from high school in four years, compared to 78 percent nationwide.
The state has tried to improve its lowest-performing districts, but in the past six years Mississippi has underfunded schools by more than $1 billion and there is no extra money set aside to help conservatorship districts.
Still, since 1996 Mississippi has taken over 15 districts for various reasons, including financial mismanagement and poor academic performance, and it is set to take over more schools this year.
Consider the mixed results:
Two districts that the state took over in the 1990’s and then released back to local control — North Panola and Oktibbeha County — are once again under state control for poor academic performance.
Other districts have been returned to local control after making little academic progress. The Okolona Separate School District, about 20 miles south of Tupelo, was under state control from 2010-12 after years of low test scores and numerous accreditation violations. The district was returned to local control in 2012, even though only 14 percent of the district’s third graders scored proficient or advanced on the state reading test that year.
In a 2012 press release, Tom Burnham, who was then state superintendent, said “This is why we have this tool in place, to improve the school district and return it back to the community in better shape.” The release cited Okolona’s progress: the district met all but three state accreditation standards and every senior at Okolona High School was set to graduate that month.
But one year after the state left, 73 percent of students in the district graduated, and less than 50 percent of high school students passed the state English exam. Only 15 percent of fourth graders scored proficient on the state math test.
“It’s really hard to find many examples of state takeovers that have led to dramatically different performance,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.
Five of the districts currently under state control in Mississippi have had several years to show academic growth, but that growth has been relatively varied, and in some districts, mediocre. A Hechinger Report analysis of school data found that all of the districts have seen at least slight improvement in their overall score from the state on a 300-point scale, which is based on student test scores. But in several districts those gains have been erratic year to year.
Some of the five districts have struggled to show steady growth in individual grade levels or subject areas, and have seen test scores rise one year, only to drop the next year. In third-grade math, all five districts showed overall gains since their takeovers. But only two districts saw growth each year in high school algebra pass rates. All five districts showed year-to-year ups and downs in eighth-grade language arts scores from the time the state took over until 2013. Two additional districts that were taken over in 2012 registered a decline in third-grade math scores right after the state took over.
And these mixed results come at a time when the state may expand takeovers. A 2010 Mississippi law permits the state to take over individual schools rather than entire districts. At least 50 schools will be eligible to be taken over this fall due to years of low academic performance
Across the country, more than half of all states have laws that allow the state to take over failing districts. Several states have struggled to improve failing districts even after decades of control. In New Jersey, the Newark school district has been under state control since 1995 but still registers low test scores and graduation rates. Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia’s public schools in 2001, and test scores have dropped while the district wrestles with the debt it incurred from pension obligations and funding new charter schools. Last year, district officials had to borrow $50 million to avoid delaying the beginning of the new school year.
The problem, Petrilli said, is that widespread change is often the key factor leading to improvement. “What typically will happen is the state will simply replace the superintendent with someone they choose,” he said. “If nothing else changes — the central office stays the same, all of the systems, curriculum, all of those reasons that the system is failing in the first place — … then [the superintendent] doesn’t necessarily make the radical changes you would need to see for radically different performance.”
It’s unclear what a successful takeover would look like in Mississippi. In some states, like Tennessee, clear growth goals and a timeline are set for schools or districts that are taken over. Tennessee’s Achievement School District includes the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, all of which have the goal of moving to the top 25 percent within five years. Since the achievement district’s inception in 2012, the state has closely monitored its progress. In the 2012-13 school year, the district’s schools posted drops in reading scores, and modest growth in math and science. In Mississippi, the state identifies administrative and financial areas to fix through annual audits of school accreditation standards, which look at such measures as finances and school board practices. Districts can also be taken over if they are rated as failing by the state for two consecutive school years or if there is a pattern of “poor student performance.” When a district is taken over, the audit becomes the district’s “action plan,” which provides steps the district must take to fix accreditation violations. But the state does not set academic criteria for the district’s exit from a takeover, or a timeline for improvement. “Initially, [the goal] is to try to get out of the failing status,” said Larry Drawdy, Mississippi’s deputy state superintendent of school improvement, oversight, recovery and conservatorship. The takeover process in Mississippi is quick. After the governor declares a state of emergency in a district due to finances, poor academic performance, or concerns for student safety, the superintendent and the school board are immediately removed.
An experienced superintendent is usually hired by the state as a conservator, and takes control of the district. The conservator can make immediate changes, which can include firing teachers and hiring new business managers or administrators. The position is paid for by the district, unless, Drawdy said, the district is in debt and can’t afford it. In those cases, the state will front the bill. Some districts, like Tate County, have had the same conservator for the entirety of the takeover. In other districts, like Hazlehurst and North Panola, several conservators have cycled through. After a district returns to local control and a new superintendent is hired, conservators may move to another takeover district. While salaries vary, most conservators make about the same or slightly more than a superintendent. According to state contracts, conservators make $850 each day, regardless of how long they stay in the district. One of Hazlehurst’s conservators made nearly $46,000 for a 54-day contract. Another made $140,000 for a nine-month contract, and had an additional $24,500 available to spend on travel. A conservator for the North Panola School District made $170,000 for an 11-month contract, and had a $24,000 travel allowance. Superintendent salaries in the state also vary, but range from below $100,000 to more than $180,000 each year. Drawdy said once districts show they have fixed violations in the annual audit, they’re cleared by the Mississippi Department of Education and return to local control. There is no limit on how long a takeover can last. Some Mississippi districts have returned to local control after one year while others remain under state control after six years. In a July 2013 press release, Drawdy, then the interim state superintendent, defended the efficacy of the state takeovers of Hazlehurst, Tate County, and North Panola. “Overall, conservators have done a good job of getting these districts back on track,” Drawdy said. The state education department denied a public records request by The Hechinger Report for the most recent accreditation audits of Hazlehurst, Tate County, and North Panola — all districts that are exiting takeovers this year. A state official wrote that the Mississippi Department of Education “does not have any documents responsive to your request,” (The state did provide earlier audits.) Based on publicly available records, Tate County appears to be one of the most academically successful takeovers in Mississippi. The district’s overall state score has grown 34 points, the second-greatest improvement after North Panola. Last year, about 66 percent of Tate’s sixth-grade students were proficient or advanced on the end-of-grade reading exam, a 22 percentage point increase since the beginning of the takeover four years earlier. The percentage of students passing the state algebra exam has increased dramatically, to nearly 90 percent last year from 45 percent in 2009. Nevertheless, critics say the state has stayed in Tate County for too long without clear exit goals. “I’m somewhat frustrated that it’s taken almost six years,” said state Senator Steve Hale, D-Senatobia, where Tate County and North Panola are located. This year, Hale proposed legislation for the second year in a row that would have set criteria for academic growth, and a cap on the amount of time a conservator could stay in the district. “There needs to be a structure there,” Hale said. “There should be a better understanding of what’s taking place, what it’s going to take to correct it, and how long it’s going to take.” But his legislation died after it was not brought up for discussion before the deadline to move bills out of committee this session. Larry Drawdy says a timeline would be difficult since the state often takes over a district and then finds the situation is much more complicated than it first appeared. “I would hate to put any time length on a part of conservatorship, because some districts we might be able to move into and we can correct the problem within maybe a two-year process, another one might take five years” Drawdy said. “Conservatorships are similar, but they’re all different. Each one of them has their own peculiarities.”
Help for Hazlehurst
The experience of the Hazlehurst School District illustrates both the benefits and problems brought on by a state takeover.
Few people deny that the district needed help when the state intervened in 2008. Hazlehurst serves more than 1,500 students about 35 miles south of Jackson, and has posted poor scores on state tests for years. Ninety percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In recent years, dozens of the district’s vacant teaching positions have been filled by first-year teachers from Teach For America, who tend to leave after two years.
In the spring of 2008, a state audit found the district was in full compliance with only two of 37 accreditation standards. Members of the community members and the staff told state officials that they “perceive that a system of nepotism and favoritism exists.” School board members randomly appeared at schools, in what district employees called attempts to “harass and/or intimidate.”
The administration was unstable as well. According to a 2011 judicial brief, there were six different principals at Hazlehurst Middle School during the 2008-09 school year.
In the years after the state took control, the district has continued to struggle with turnover. In the past six years, the district has had at least five different conservators.
Conservatorship is the “loneliest job in the state of Mississippi,” said Larry Drawdy — and one of the hardest positions to fill. “Basically, [conservators] have to pick up and move to a community that they’re not familiar with, where they don’t know anybody there,” Drawdy added. “They don’t know who they can trust.”
But conservators also bring an outside perspective and the singular authority to make tough decisions. They can replace office staff, dismiss teachers, and make swift changes. “They are the total voice for the school district,” Drawdy said. “It’s really not the checks and balances you would have with the superintendent and the board.”
In Hazlehurst, where the school board was in violation of several accreditation standards — including failure to provide notice of public meetings and to take minutes during the meetings — the state takeover allowed conservators to make immediate changes. To address the academic gaps, a more intractable problem, the district added a block of time during the school day to work with struggling students on basic skills, and created an after-school program open to all students. Consultants were brought in to help train teachers on using data and creating strong lesson plans. Henry Dorsey, the current conservator of Hazlehurst, says the goal for the district was “to move our kids from proficient to advanced, and to move those that were basic to proficient.” Clearly, the performance data has been mixed.
Andy Smarick said sometimes a state doesn’t have the staff or capacity to make dramatic progress in a district, but takes control because of a “sense of moral obligation” after a district hits “rock bottom.”
But then, Smarick said, officials often don’t know what to do with the district. “[States] realize ‘we were not set up to take over a district, much less run schools from the capital when the district might be 50, 200, 300 miles away,’” Smarick said.
Despite some persistently low scores in Hazlehurst, Drawdy, the deputy state superintendent, said “there’s a point where we have to decide that it’s time now to give it back.” Districts in conservatorship find it difficult to attract teachers and principals, he said.
Henry Dorsey, the current superintendent of Hazlehurst, said improved test scores have made it easier to attract teachers.
And in some districts, Larry Drawdy said the state can only do so much. “We can significantly go in and change and bring that school district up to what it needs to be accreditation wise, financial wise, and in many cases test score wise…because we can control the school,” Drawdy said. “We cannot control the community because we have not changed the culture in the community.”
Lessons from Tate County Although the results of state takeovers have been relatively mediocre overall, Tate County is a rare example of academic success. When the state took control of the Tate County School District in 2009, the rural district that serves about 3,000 students was more than $1 million in debt. Supplies and technology were grossly insufficient: A 2009 audit of the district found that computers for a vocational program were running Windows 3.0, a system released in 1990. The district, just 30 miles south of the Tennessee border, was also struggling academically. In 2009, only 40 percent of third-grade students scored proficient or advanced on the end-of-grade English language arts exam. Only 45 percent of students passed the state algebra exam. Teachers were “just sort of floating around on their own little island,” said James Malone, a former high school principal and district superintendent, who was appointed by the state as the district’s conservator in 2009. When he took control, Malone rolled out a district-wide curriculum so teachers at each school were teaching the same material. Teachers began to use frequent assessments to track student progress, and consultants were brought in to observe and coach teachers. At the same time, Malone had to make cuts to whittle down the $1 million deficit. In the 2009-10 school year, Tate County cut all of its assistant teachers, and most new teachers. He was able to hire back some staff members, but had to increase class sizes to do so. “When you cut personnel and you’re still trying to improve test scores…that’s difficult,” Malone said. On a recent morning at Tate’s Strayhorn High School in the small rural town of Sarah, Miss., veteran math teacher Molly Berry was teaching parabolas to 10 students who were riveted by a picture of a Ferrari sports car displayed on a screen in the front of the room. “Where’s the parabola in this picture?” Berry asked. “The hood!” one student offered. “The steering wheel?” another guessed. Berry pointed to the front of the car. “The headlights,” she said. “I said that!” two students chorused. The algebra scores at this rural high school have grown dramatically since the state takeover. In 2009, only 41 percent of its students passed the state algebra exam. Last year, more students took the exam, and nearly 90 percent passed. “We have worked really hard,” Berry said, referring to teachers in the district. She said that the expectations for students and teachers have grown since the state took control. It’s also helped, she added, that teachers have access to consultants and coaches. Unlike Hazlehurst, leadership in Tate County has remained consistent. “The same leadership — and good leadership — sets a certain expectation for the school,” Berry said.
A new model
As the state considers whether to take control of dozens of schools this year, experts question whether Mississippi should be thinking along the lines of Memphis or New Orleans, where the state has plucked failing schools out of the traditional system, and then handed many of them over to charter school operators.
The reception to charter schools has been more hostile in Mississippi. Last year, the state passed a law that allows up to 15 charter schools to open in underperforming districts each year. But it is unlikely that they would take on a role similar to those in New Orleans and Memphis because this spring, two pieces of legislation that would have created a statewide takeover district in Mississippi, similar to Louisiana’s and Tennessee’s, failed to make it out of the House and Senate.
Andy Smarick said that it can be harder for rural areas with fewer people, a smaller workforce, and less ability to attract charter school operators, to make the changes seen in large cities. “You’re left without a lot of really good options,” he said. “The set of solutions you can apply in urban areas, those things, in some sense, go out the window when you’re talking about a sparsely populated area.”
In Tate County, conservator James Malone is a believer in the potential of the current model of state takeovers. He says that the academic growth in the district is evidence that Tate County is ready to return to local control this year.
“It’s been a long haul,” Malone said. “But we feel that we got the job done.”
In Defuniak Springs in Florida’s panhandle, the third graders at West Defuniak Elementary are learning division.
Specifically, 72 divided by six. Their teacher, Casi Adkinson drew circles onto the board.
“I share my 72 into my six circles,” Adkinson said. “Are we ready to do that together? Ready? 1,2,3,4,5…”
With the class counting along, Adkinson drew 72 marks, grouped into six separate circles.
“Ok, I shared my 72,” she said. “What do I do next? Alaya?
“Oh! You count how many there are in the six circles,” Alaya said.
By the time the lesson is over, the class finished only four problems.
“I know to some people, they might think ‘that’s not many problems, I’d want to cover 20,’” Adkinson said. “It doesn’t matter if you cover 20 problems if they don’t understand why they’re doing it.”
The idea of ‘less is more’ has permeated West Defuniak Elementary since 2011. That’s when the school began to phase in the new Common Core standards with its youngest students.
The standards lay out what students are expected to learn from kindergarten through twelfth grade. That’s led to big changes in this rural district.
Students are reading more non-fiction, and must use evidence to back up written responses. In math, students have to learn more than one way to solve the same problem, and they must explain their methods.
“To solve it I drew one big circle,” Ava said, “and I put the number nine in it and I know we’re dividing by three so I put three groups and then I counted to nine and made them all equal and it equaled three.”
Eight-year-old Ava’s attempt to divide 9 by 3 has taken over an entire sheet of paper. Ava’s ability to show her work, also showed Adkinson that the new standards are helping students understand the material on a deeper level.
“Last year it would have been ‘Are you going to multiply or divide? ‘Multiply?’ Awesome, correct answer,” she said. “Now I want them to provide evidence. I want them to prove to me why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Although many teachers are optimistic about the new standards, they are also cautious about rolling out too much too soon.
This spring, kids in grades three through twelve will be tested on the old standards. That means teachers like Adkinson are teaching a hybrid. She said the district has been careful in planning when each concept will be taught.
“The FCAT is — its very important that they are prepared for it,” she said. “We don’t want to teach them something that’s going to either confuse them…But we also have to prepare for Common Core coming because next year, it’s full implementation.
“We have just made sure that what we’re teaching is what’s going to prepare them for that assessment.”
Photo: JACKIE MADER
Students in Casi Adkinson’s third grade class at West Defuniak Elementary participate in a math lesson.
The community has mostly welcomed the new standards. But West Defuniak principal Darlene Paul said some parents are worried that test scores and grades will drop as harder standards are introduced.
“The concern is that students are making A’s and B’s in Kindergarten and first grade,” Paul said, “and somewhere where we hit second grade and the rigor makes a jump, and their children are not making those grades anymore, they might have a B or a C, then that becomes a big concern.”
Paul has other worries too.
The new Common Core tests will be on computers, which means students will need to be familiar with technology that many of them do not have. West Defuniak serves about 650 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. More than 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“Everyone doesn’t have an iPad,” she said. “Everyone at home is not able to get on the Internet. Those are some of our barriers and challenges.”
Next year, there could be even more challenges for teachers who are just now becoming familiar with the standards. The state Board of Education recently approved nearly 100 changes for the Common Core.
This story is part of a series from The Hechinger Report and StateImpact Florida looking at how Florida schools are getting ready for Common Core standards.
When the students at Ridgeland High School returned to school in August, they were greeted with a host of unexpected changes: The school day was six minutes longer. All classes, including art and choir, had required reading assignments. And each student had to attend a new, daily class period to receive extra help with course work.
Many of the Ridgeland High students had little idea the changes were driven by the Common Core, a set of new education standards Mississippi and most other states adopted in 2010. But their teachers knew all too well.
Sandra Jarrett, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Madison Middle School, teaches her students how to diagram a sentence. Jarrett stopped teaching the concept about six years ago, but says the new standards have made it necessary to focus more on skills that involve writing and critical thinking. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Sandra Jarrett, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Madison Middle School, teaches her students how to diagram a sentence. Jarrett stopped teaching the concept about six years ago, but says the new standards have made it necessary to focus more on skills that involve writing and critical thinking. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
In Mississippi, state officials have largely left it up to individual districts to overhaul their approach to instruction to meet the new standards. That means teachers in Madison County, which serves more than 12,000 students across the suburbs just north of Jackson, have spent dozens of hours rethinking every aspect of their teaching. And principals, too, have had to make significant changes, including lengthening the school day to give teachers — and students — more time to grapple with the new standards.
The Common Core math and English language arts standards lay out what skills students should master at different grade levels; they also aim to encourage more analysis and critical thinking across subject areas. In 2015, Mississippi students will start taking computer-based tests aligned with the standards.
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Madison superintendent Ronnie McGehee says that the district has encouraged its 20 schools to make changes based on their individual needs. “Schools have autonomy underneath the big umbrella,” McGehee said. Although Madison is one of the highest achieving districts in the state, it is also one of the largest and more diverse. About half of the district’s schools received an A or B rating this year on the state’s A to F scale, while the other half received a C or D rating. Thirty-five percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The differences between schools have made a “one size fits all” approach all but impossible, McGehee said. He added that district officials see their role as trying to support initiatives at individual schools and encourage collaboration between teachers.
Dozens of Madison County teachers interviewed said they are relying on each other for their most meaningful teacher training. “I would not be able to do this by myself, none of us would,” said Suzanne Williams, a first-grade teacher at Madison Crossing Elementary in Canton. “I can’t imagine having to teach somewhere where you don’t have a team.”
A learning curve
On a recent morning at Madison Crossing Elementary, about 25 miles outside of Jackson, the school’s five first-grade teachers gathered around a table for a meeting on how to grade student writing.
Suzanne Williams and Laura Morris, first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary, discuss a piece of student writing. The teachers say collaboration has been necessary to ease the transition to new standards. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Suzanne Williams and Laura Morris, first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary, discuss a piece of student writing. The teachers say collaboration has been necessary to ease the transition to new standards. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
Their students had reached the end of a unit on non-fiction writing, which is a cornerstone of Common Core, and each had brought examples of student work to learn how the writing would be scored based on a new set of criteria aligned with Common Core. Now, the students will be graded on their incorporation of details to support a topic and effective use of transition words, such as “also.” Under the old standards, the first-grade teachers graded students largely on punctuation and grammar.
The shift has presented a huge learning curve for the teachers as well as the students. “We’re not teaching five facts of caterpillars and having them copy them down into a journal like we used to,” said Martha D’Amico, the principal at Madison Crossing. Under Common Core, first-graders will have to research topics, write detailed opinion or explanatory responses and brainstorm more with their classmates.
And for the first time, the teachers are introducing their young students to more sophisticated writing techniques, like “twin sentences,” which refers to two consecutive sentences where the second elaborates on a fact in the first. (One teacher gave this example from a student’s writing: Caterpillars eat leaves. Leaves are on plants.)
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The teachers have turned to each other to figure out how to incorporate the new standards into their teaching. For instance, at Mannsdale Elementary in Madison, two third grade teachers spent the summer writing a new English language arts and math curriculum aligned with the Common Core that all of the third-grade teachers at the school can use this year.
Across the district, all teachers participate in small groups called professional learning communities, based on grade levels. At Madison Crossing, D’Amico meets with each professional learning community once a week, but most groups meet on their own every day. (While teachers said the groups have become more necessary since Common Core, participating in a learning community is also a requirement of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, which will most likely roll out in 2016.)
The teachers have made subtle changes to their schedules to make it easier to collaborate. For instance, all the members of the first-grade team moved to the same hallway this year so they could confer with each other more easily, including during hallway monitoring duty. Many teachers say they now stay several hours past the end of the school day and text each at home during the evening as they realign their lesson plans to meet the new standards.
“We weren’t taught these things in school,” said first-grade teacher Brande Winstead. “It’s hard to teach something that you haven’t been taught. We take it home every night and we dig into it so we will learn how to teach it.”
The need for flexibility
While teachers and principals have taken the lead in the transition to Common Core, state officials have sponsored dozens of in-person training sessions and webinars, which address specific topics like kindergarten writing. The Mississippi Department of Education also created a page on iTunes where teachers can access recordings of meetings.
The principal of Madison Crossing, Martha D’Amico, explains how to grade student writing, while teacher Lela Hester looks on. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
The principal of Madison Crossing, Martha D’Amico, explains how to grade student writing, while teacher Lela Hester looks on. (Photo: Jackie Mader)
But with a Common Core training team of only two people, the state is limited in its ability to help. Marla Davis, director of mathematics for the Mississippi Department of Education, says the team is also cautious of overstepping its bounds. “Local districts know the needs of their students and the needs of their teachers much more than we could,” Davis said. While the state will continue to offer training sessions, Davis said she does not foresee the state providing sample lesson plans, curriculum or classroom materials, which other states like Colorado and New York have done. “We want to leave the autonomy there at local districts. That will allow them a lot more flexibility.”
Amidst the administrators in Madison County, there is a hunger for that flexibility. At a recent professional development session for principals, Ridgeland High School principal Sharon Summers and assistant principal Tim Dowdy presented their school’s changes to a group of two-dozen colleagues. The other principals were particularly intrigued by the scheduling adjustments that give teachers more time to help struggling students and each other.
Summers hopes that the new schedule will ease the transition to Common Core. By next year, all math and English teachers at Ridgeland will begin to teach based on the new standards, which are considered more rigorous than the state’s previous standards. In the meantime, she is hopeful that teachers will now have more time simply to talk to one another. “That’s the one thing about Common Core,” Summers said. “It’s not something you do in isolation. It has to be a collaborative effort.”