A Tale of Two Schools Bearden Elementary Walton Elementary
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The Challenge
History of the Reading Wars
State of Reading Reform
Closing the Achievement Gap
Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Separate but Superior
Jackson Clarion-Ledger: Delta Schools Search for Answers
Jackson Clarion-Ledger: Delta Schools Search for Answers

"For a small school, I think it's good," said Jaquitta Ford, 16, an 11th-grader who wants to attend Spelman College in Atlanta and major in computer science.

But Ford and her classmates are starting behind the rest of the state.

Schools in the Delta, Mississippi's premier farming region, have always been lacking, said Andy Mullins, executive assistant to the University of Mississippi chancellor and former special assistant to three state superintendents of education.

The prosperous white families who owned plantations often didn't send children to local public schools.

"You had a tradition in the Delta that went back a hundred years of sending kids out of state to boarding schools," he said. "The public schools, in a lot of cases, were viewed as the school for the working man, the common man. For a lot of the poor whites, it was the only place they could go."

Until 1970s desegregation, the children of the white "common man" and black "common man" attended classes in different buildings under the umbrella of the same systems.

The all-white boards of trustees didn't want to pump a lot of money into the black schools because "you didn't want to educate a good field worker because they'd leave the field," Mullins said.

"You had an all-white Legislature, with only one or two blacks as late as 1968. There wasn't much interest in improving the schools."

Federal court rulings in the 1970s ordering Mississippi schools to desegregate meant white and black students had to attend classes under the same roof and get the same resources.

When that happened, what white students were in those schools "fled en masse, more than anywhere else in the state, to the private academies," Mullins said. "Public support for public schools diminished."

With the already better educated white students in private schools, public schools were left with high numbers of impoverished black students, stunted by years of educational neglect. Their parents and grandparents weren't educated and often didn't understand why their children needed to be.

Delta public schools, more so than those in any other region of Mississippi, became and remain largely black, with black enrollments of 80 to nearly 100 percent in most of the districts. Statewide, 51 percent of the students in public schools are black.

In all but two of the 35 Delta districts, more than half the students are poor enough to qualify for the federal free lunch program — and in most Delta districts the percentage is 80 percent or more of the students, well above the state average of 54.6 percent.

National researchers say the most consistent predictor of a school's test scores is the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch. The higher the free-lunch percentage, the poorer the students and the worse they do as a group on standardized tests because they lack essential preparation and support better-off students walk in the door with.

Before school problems can be tackled, the state should beef up economic development in the Delta, Barnes said.

"It's time for somebody in our Legislature or somebody from the corporate world to say 'enough is enough,' " he said.

Once there is a tax base, real attention can be focused on improving schools, he said.

"What I think needs to happen is districts like mine need to get a lion's share of (available state) money off the top, then talk about splitting money. The Delta has less of everything right now," Barnes said.

Val Towner, principal of Marks Middle School in Quitman County, echoes Barnes' sentiment.

"What we need is a concerted effort by the state of Mississippi for better education," Towner said. "We need extra help, not necessarily just extra money. Take a millionaire and give him $1,000 and give someone like me $1,000, it's not going to help me as much. We have problems here that you don't have in Ridgeland or Tupelo. But (those who live) east of I-55 or south of Jackson, they're not going to holler much to help us."

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Photo Credit for Bearden Elementary: Maude Schuyler Clay
Photo Credit for Walton Elementary: Chris Hamilton

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