/Failing and forgotten Black students languish as a Mississippi town reckons with its painful past

Failing and forgotten Black students languish as a Mississippi town reckons with its painful past

YAZOO CITY (Mississippi) — Sharonique Freeman quit Webster Elementary School because her teachers kept leaving. Freeman had to go through so many substitutes and instructors that her parents Joe and Sharon Freeman decided to homeschool her instead. Joe Freeman stated that Sharonique, now in eighth grade, was safe and sound. Most parents in Yazoo City aren’t able to afford private school or educate their children at home. The students are sent to public school in a district where they rank near the bottom in academic performance and education quality. In 1969, the federal government made it compulsory to integrate the schools. White people fled Yazoo City, west-central Mississippi, for the nearby county and private academies. Their legacy left behind hatred and a school district today that is 98% black and has the lowest state median income. Yazoo City Municipal Schools District is one of many Mississippi school systems that have resegregated in recent years. 49 districts are more black than white and 19 are more white than black. According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis, Yazoo City’s District is part of a disturbing pattern. On the Mississippi Department of Education’s academic achievement scale, no districts with more than three quarters of black residents are given an “A” or a “B”. None of the three-quarters of white districts are given a “D” or ‘F” rating. Jake McGraw, the public policy director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Jackson, Mississippi, said that none of these districts are “A” or “B”. Hundreds of black students from Mississippi’s segregated schools have been unable to find the skills and opportunities they need in adulthood. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the unemployment rate for black residents in Mississippi was 14.8 percent in 2016. This compares to 6.5 percent among white residents. Twenty-seven per cent of black residents in Yazoo City were not employed that year. In its “Abandoned in America” series, the Center for Public Integrity is examining Yazoo City as well as five other communities that are connected by their deep needs and senses of political abandonment. This comes at a time when President Donald Trump has declared America’s war against poverty “largely over” and “a success”. A crucial midterm election is also in the horizon. Despite what might happen in November’s midterm elections, Yazoo City’s plight is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Yazoo’s congressman, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), is on track to win a 14th term. He faces no opposition and has no Republican opponent — one of few congressional districts that does not field a Republican candidate. Thompson has sponsored only two bills regarding K-12 education in his 25-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives. Neither of these bills passed. Yazoo City may have a seat at the table but without significant black voter turnout in November, it will not be possible. Mike Espy is an African-American former Democratic congressman and former senator from Mississippi. He faces stiff competition from Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith and Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville), in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator or a black senator since Reconstruction. In recent years, the federal government that forced schools to integrate decades back has not intervened — and its courts allow districts to get out of desegregation orders across the country. Trump and Betsy DeVos (his education secretary) are pushing “school option” policies. This would allow federal tax dollars to be spent on charter or private schools. While many conservatives see this as a cure for failing public facilities and a way to save them money, the American Federation of Teachers believes it would lead “destabilization of our public schools” and encourage segregation. Leslie Hinkson is an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University who has been studying the achievement gap between white and black children since 2001. Although studies differ on whether integration has succeeded or not, it is generally agreed that schools with high levels of low-income students do not adequately prepare their children for adulthood. Mississippi’s income and race are closely linked. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while black people accounted for 38 percent of Mississippi’s population in 2017, they also accounted for 60 per cent of those living in poverty. The people of Yazoo City don’t have the money to make political contributions. They gave $193,600 in 2016 to federal elections, more than half of which came from former Mississippi Governor. Haley Barbour, a Yazoo city native and Republican. According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis, half of the Yazoo County residents are not eligible to vote. This is one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 to force Mississippi’s black and white schools to close the academic gap. Two of the four plaintiffs are low income mothers who live in Yazoo City. This small town is known as the “gateway to the Mississippi Delta”. It’s located about 40 miles north from Jackson, the capital of the state. The court case will likely take many years to get through the system. Advocates claim that the state legislature has not been able to reform a school funding system that has done very little over the past few decades to support poor areas like the one in Yazoo City. The 64-year-old Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that banned “separate, but equal” school systems has eroded any hope African-Americans had. Aubrey Brent Jr., a Yazoo City alderman, said that “We tried with deegregation and it failed.” He was a 1960s graduate of the all-black highschool. “Where do you go from here?” A sign reading “Out of Order” was posted on a bathroom stall at Webster Elementary School in July, the oldest school still being used by the district. Years of heavy use had left desks ruined. Some of the windows in the classrooms at the old all-black high school were cracked. The hallways were covered in peeling paint. Webster’s heating system broke a few years back. Parents tried to help the school with money, but he was afraid of being retaliated against. The cold snap that hit Yazoo City last year meant that the school heaters were unable to keep up. So teachers huddled the children in one room for warmth. The student was picked up by the teacher in the middle of the afternoon and the two left. Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit against Mississippi claims that parents have had to send their children toilet paper and hand soap to Webster because they ran out. (The administration of the district denied that this was true. The suit also claims that Webster’s bathrooms don’t work all the time and that outdated technology and textbooks are used. Research shows that students who live in old buildings perform worse on tests than those who live in modern buildings. Poor student performance is a common problem in Yazoo City. Carolyn Johnson, a former fourth grade teacher, stated that many students couldn’t read and couldn’t complete their math, science, or social studies assignments. Johnson claimed that her classroom was plagued with discipline problems and that she did not feel supported by her administrators when students disrupted whole classes. Johnson was fed up and left the Yazoo City area in February. She used her retirement savings to fund the Yazoo Gifted Academy, a preschool for children who were able to act out after 40 years of education. Johnson hopes to inspire a new generation of readers by getting children to read early and teaching parents how to nurture them at home. Even if she succeeds, her 22-member inaugural class will only be a fraction of the 2,400 students in the school district. Tracie Britten, a fourth-grade math teacher, left McCoy Elementary School in Yazoo City after two years. She said she was part of an exodus from teachers unhappy with the school’s management. She moved to Canton, half an hour from her home, and took up a teaching job. A school without teachers is just a building. The Yazoo City District advertised for 24 vacancies at McCoy. This school teaches second- through fifth graders. Webster Elementary was vacant for pre-K, kindergarten, and first-graders. There were also 11 vacancies at McCoy High School. The middle school had 14 vacancies. Yazoo City schools continue to fail by almost every other measure. According to data from the Mississippi Department of Education, teachers in Yazoo City are paid less than average and have more students. * Only 5.6 percent of students in the district are considered ready to go to college or pursue a career. The graduation rate in this district is 66.7 per cent, which is tied for the lowest in the state. * Only 12.2 percent of Yazoo City’s 2,400-student school district were proficient in reading in 2018, the second lowest rate in the State. 14.4 percent were proficient in math, the sixth-lowest rate. In 2015, 25% of the students in the district were disciplined for poor behavior. A third of Yazoo City high school students are chronically absent. * Yazoo City spent approximately $8,000 per student during the 2016-2017 schoolyear, which is well below the $9,781 average per student. It was ranked 145th among 147 school districts for per-child spending in 2016, but studies show that students from low-income families require more support and resources than students from families with higher incomes. Where can you find help for a school district that seems incapable of supporting itself? The Mississippi Department of Education declared an “extreme crisis” in the Yazoo City Municipal Schools District in 2013. It considered taking control, a move reserved for the most poorly performing schools in the state. According to a 2013 agreement between the state and the district, the prognosis was dire. The state’s Commission on School Accreditation found that the situation “jeopardized children’s educational interests” and recommended that the state intervene to prevent “a continuation of an insecure and inadequate educational environment thereby denying students of the District the chance to learn, excel and receive a public education free and appropriate to their needs.” The state was presented with an ambitious improvement plan by Yazoo City’s new superintendent. It concluded that it did not have the resources necessary to assume control. Mike Kent, interim deputy superintendent of the state education department, stated that the state was assuming control over two other districts. The district was managed by local Yazoo City officials. Kent stated that their plan failed to materialize because the superintendent resigned. Kent stated that state officials have been monitoring the district in the same way they monitor all poor performing districts. However, there aren’t enough resources to take control. The Mississippi legislature has given the state’s education department a mandate to intervene. In 2016, lawmakers passed a bill that required districts that were rated “F” for at least two consecutive years to be absorbed into the state’s “Achievement Schools District.” For local control to resume, districts must be ranked with at least a “C” for five consecutive years. Kent stated that the plan has not been implemented. Kent stated that “we have not been able to set it up, put it into motion, because we haven’t been able identify the personnel.” Kent said that sometimes we can identify the people who will do the work and then you can’t pay them what it’s worth. A separate 2017 law could have designated the district a “District of Transformation”, but that has not happened for Yazoo City. Recently, Yazoo City has shown signs of improvement. One, it went from an “F” rating on the state’s scale to a “D” in 2017 after moving from 2016. Yazoo City, however, lost its optimism when the new ratings were released earlier in the month. Uncertainty at the top of the organizational structure adds to the anxiety. Georgia Ingram was appointed interim superintendent in July after the previous superintendent resigned two years into her three-year contract. Ingram is Ingram’s third superintendent in as many years. Ingram stated that the district has faced “academic difficulties”. Our biggest challenge is to make education a priority for our community so that people know that our high school is the center of the community. The success of our high school will attract businesses and industries to our community. If the community is successful, then the school district will have more money.” She admits that she has a lot of work ahead. The Yazoo County school district has the lowest median household income in the state at $20,000 per year. Diane Delaware, Yazoo City mayor, stated that if you don’t have quality schools, then you don’t have innovative minds, capability, or skills. I don’t have the right answer. It must be fixed. It can be fixed,” Hinkson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University who studied the achievement gap between black children and white children, stated that the federal government could intervene. This would include altering the boundaries of districts to allow for the integration of black and white students or putting more money into segregated low-income schools. This would enable schools to keep qualified teachers, improve their facilities, and offer extracurricular activities and advanced placement courses. Hinkson stated that schools with greater funding could significantly improve their quality. This federal intervention is unlikely. Trump and DeVos believe there is a better way to solve the problem. Instead of injecting troubled schools with federal funds, DeVos and Trump see “school choice” as a way for students in low-performing areas to be able to access better schools. Trump has held three rallies across Mississippi since his start to his presidential race in June 2015. He said that education was the “civil rights problem of our time”. Trump stated in 2017 that “school choice” is a way for students in poor-performing districts to be able to get into better schools. Trump said that these families should have the freedom to choose which school is best for them. Yazoo City doesn’t receive a lot of presidential foot-traffic. According to Mississippi Today, Jimmy Carter visited the country in 1977. Thompson’s nearest district office, Yazoo City’s congressman is located 40 miles from Jackson. Thompson said that he has supported “school choice” bills previously, but he is happy to support them now.
Representatives of Congress have proposed ed education legislation that would increase school funding. Thompson sponsored one of the education-related bills. It would have offered financial incentives to teachers in rural and high-poverty regions. In 2003, he sponsored the bill. The second, which was sponsored in 2005, was about a preschool program for Hurricane Katrina-affected children. Both died and languished, never receiving a vote by either a House committee nor the full House. Thompson stated that Thompson has not been approached by Yazoo City business leaders to sponsor bills to improve the school system. He said they are more interested in workforce development. Thompson stated that the majority of chambers of commerce members and rotary club members send their children to rural Mississippi’s segregated private academies. In most cases in the South, this is what you will find. “They have abandoned public schools.” A special Senate election will be held Nov. 6 to fill the seat of Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), who retired earlier in the year. It will feature multiple candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties. The top two finishers in the race will be facing each other in a Nov. 27, runoff, if neither of them receives more than 50% of the votes. Espy is a Democrat from Yazoo City who has served three terms as U.S. House speaker and was also one of President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretaries. Espy will be facing Hyde Smith, who was elected to complete Cochran’s term. He is currently in close proximity in polls. Chris McDaniel is a tea-party-backed Republican who defends Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Facebook and uses Confederate symbols in his campaign signs. None of the candidates were available for interviews. According to Hyde-Smith’s website, Hyde Smith believes that “Mississippi doesn’t need Washington telling her how to educate its children.” Local politicians have stated that it is difficult to attract businesses to Yazoo City due to the low-performing schools. Brent, the alderman said that it took Walmart 20 years to open a store. Delaware stated that she hasn’t had to make any major economic development announcements, despite Walmart being the exception. Residents said that while the federal prison is the biggest employer, many of its workers commute to Yazoo City daily. Thomas Johnson, the owner of Tom’s On Main, one of the few downtown restaurants, said that while they would love to have them living here, they aren’t interested in moving to an area with a failing education system. “Certainly that will affect the economy. “I think that a strong school system would make our economy more productive. Johnson, a white man, was a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives between 1992 and 2000. He also served on the education committee responsible for formulating the school funding formula that is still in effect today. Johnson’s wife, a former school teacher, is his representative. Johnson believes that the failures of failing schools like Yazoo City’s stem from a lack in parental involvement and absentee fathers, not the funding structure. Brent, a black graduate of the local school district in segregation, admits that there are cultural obstacles to education. He said that some black residents are discouraged by the idea of pursuing education. Brent, who has been an educator for 42-years, says the problem goes deeper than that. He said that there are not enough black role models for children due to the cycle of poverty, which he explained was caused by the system that replaced black teachers with white ones when schools became integrated. Teachers are often underpaid and reluctant to stay in trouble schools. It’s difficult to raise enough funds for schools when the funding structure relies on taxing old structures. Brent stated that “the cards are stacked against poor people.” Johnny Staples was a Yazoo City basketball, football, and tennis coach from 1968 to his retirement 12 years ago. He said that the students need extra attention to succeed. This he tried to do over the years through a non-profit called Focus on the Children. He also pointed out the loss of heritage that black kids suffered when schools were integrated. He said that they were no longer learning through singing, dancing and plays. Staples stated, “When we integrated all of that went out, and it was quite a different ballgame.” Staples stated that school leadership has been in constant turmoil. The school board has hampered the most competent superintendents over the years. Ingram, the current interim chief superintendent, stated that schools are always playing catch-up due to the state’s new accountability system. Ingram has been an educator for over 30 years. Since joining Yazoo City Schools in 1991, Ingram has served as a principal, school improvement director and director of testing, curriculum, and director of child nutrition. Ingram stated that every time we get used to doing things the same way, the state will change how it wants them to do it. “They change how we grade us, they change our accountability level, and they change the system.” Delaware, the mayor said that the district should stop blaming accountability systems and learn from the private sector where she has worked for many years. She suggested that the district invest in areas where there are problems and look at other methods. Delaware claimed that she visited a Chicago school that was able to adapt to the needs and wants of inner-city children. Yazoo City dismissed some of her ideas as being too radical and would not work in a small community. Delaware stated that “we are our worst enemy.” Ingram, the interim superintendent says that she will be focusing on student achievement and teacher morale this year. Ingram also wants to encourage people to place more emphasis on education. Some people think it will take more effort to make a difference. Thompson stated that he believes the federal government should play a more proactive role. Thompson stated that “we have not created a level playing field for the children who attend public school because we have taken away our hands.” Thompson said, “That’s how the government views public education. “There has never been a real stomach at either the Department of Education nor Department of Justice to pursue what some of our believe to be a constitutional guarantee to a free education.” Delaware and other states have doubts that Trump’s Administration, including DeVos have any idea of what it’s like to attend school in rural America. Jacob Sheriff, a black sheriff in Yazoo County, said that “this was within a few people’s minds.” Trump’s slogan was “making America great once again.” Many people asked if Trump was really saying this. Are you really saying that, or are your talking about making America more white? “” A list of questions was sent by the Center for Public Integrity to the Department of Education. The Department of Education didn’t respond. Each state is able to decide how much money will go towards schools and how it will be divided up. The current funding structure in Mississippi was approved by the Legislature in 1997. It was modified in 2006. McGraw of the Winter Institute said that the formula grants school districts a 5 per cent increase in funding for every low-income student enrolled. However, research shows that this is not enough to address the educational needs students from low-income communities and homes. In recent years, lawmakers requested a study by consultants. They recommended a new formula that would give districts a 25% boost for every low-income student enrolled. However, it would have limited the number of students eligible for the financial boost. McGraw stated that the legislature has not been able pass any bills to adopt the recommendations of the consultants. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit asking the state to create more equal playing fields for schools in the state. However, the state was denied a court order earlier this year. The nonprofit asked him to reconsider. It is likely that the case will take many years to be resolved even if he does. Yazoo City, as well as other districts in the state, will continue to be segregated for the foreseeable future. McGraw stated that there are many examples of school districts and schools that have integrated successfully and maintained integration. “Wherever we see segregation we see the continuation all of the things which keep Mississippi 50th in wealth, education, and health. Joe Freeman stated that Sharonique needs to be at her best. Sharonique has all A’s in her report card. She dreams of becoming a doctor and is keen to study at Harvard. Joe Yerardi was a contributor to this report.