By Cathy Hayden
December 21, 1999
INDIANOLA - If dedication alone could fix chronic academic problems, Sunflower County schools might not trail the state.
But as Delta educators such as Thomas Edwards know, it's not that simple.
At 51, the Delta born, bred and educated Edwards is superintendent of the 2,200-student district in Indianola, the heart of the Delta.
He has clean, well-maintained buildings.
He has any number of enthusiastic teachers leading students through well-planned lessons.
He has students who are quiet, polite and attentive, all impeccably dressed in khaki and navy blue uniforms.
The picture of Edwards' hard-working, conscientious students and teachers is hard to reconcile with dismal test scores. Their test scores are too low to meet state accreditation standards, and the district is accredited Level 1, probation.
His Sunflower County district is typical of the Delta, where year after year the majority of public schools perform academically at the bottom in the state.
"The problems we're talking about today were here 40 years ago," said Reggie Barnes, who after six years as West Tallahatchie schools superintendent is thinking it's about time to change jobs.
"The Delta has been neglected so long, I don't know if we'll ever catch up."
The deep-seated poverty of the overwhelmingly black student bodies and the years of educational neglect are tough obstacles to overcome for some of the most passionate educators in the state:
Eight of 12 school districts in Mississippi now on probation for low student test scores are in the Delta.
Another 14 Delta districts are among 21 statewide barely one level higher than the bottom and still struggling with lower than acceptable student test scores.
In one Delta district, Tunica County, student performance is so dismal the district has been under state oversight since March 1997.
For education in the Delta to improve, everybody white and black, public and private must work together, said Joe Haynes, associate state superintendent of education and former Greenville schools superintendent.
"There are excellent kids in the Delta. But kids have to have the support of the entire community," he said. "It's necessary for all the barriers to be pushed away."
At Ruleville Central High, where a dozen or so students in Algebra II class are in small groups studying terminology, students are ambitious. Several know what college they want to attend and talk about careers in computer programming and medicine.