/Starkville school merger What went right

Starkville school merger What went right

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found In the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant has been the most-sold book in Mississippi over the past eight months. Grant was born in London and currently lives in Jackson. He has published four books of nonfiction and articles for Smithsonian magazine. This is Grant’s first article for Mississippi Today. Oktibbeha County was stricken last year by the prospect of two separate school districts merging. Both the small and failing schools in the east and west counties, which were both over 90% African American and closed their doors, saw their students enroll at Starkville High. This school is larger and wealthier and has a strong track record in academics as well as athletics. Rex Buffington (executive director, John C. Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership), chaired the consolidation committee. Others were concerned about turf wars or gang violence. David Baggett is the principal at Starkville High. He says that parents and county kids were concerned about “inner city children” and how dangerous they were. “They worried about the tough and rough kids in the county. “There were going to 10 fights per day, that was what I heard.” Other than the occasional scuffle between the two groups, violence has not occurred. Instead of white flight, it has been the reverse. 406 white students left Starkville Academy, a private Christian school, and enrolled at Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated High. This school is 67% African American. Buffington says that this would not have happened a generation ago. “It’s still in progress, and we see real potential there for the long-term well-being of our community.” In 2012, Mississippi legislators approved the consolidation of 13 school districts within the state. This reduced the total number of schools from 152 to just 139. The Lt. Governor is one of the supporters of consolidation. Tate Reeves claims that consolidation is a way to save money on administrative expenses and put more money in classrooms where it matters. Local communities are strongly attached to the schools they run and the jobs that they do. Consolidation has generally been opposed. Jake McGraw, an education specialist from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, says that in most cases one poor, struggling, overwhelmingly African school district was merged with another to make savings. However, there has been no improvement in academic performance or savings. Starkville-Oktibbeha, however, is a different story. This merger is the first to occur in a failing district. It also marks the first ever merging of two successful districts. The vast disparity between Oktibbeha County’s school districts can be explained through forced desegregation, white flight and other factors. Buffington, of the Stennis Institute, says that integration saw the districts re-aligned so that the white suburbs could be included in the city’s school district. “The county district was almost entirely black and had a low tax base. It was very unfair.” Starkville’s city schools grew to be racially diverse over the years, with good parental support from both black and white parents and a healthy tax base. Starkville Academy was a popular choice for whites who did not like the mixed race. The county school district was in financial trouble and received D and F performance grades regularly from the Mississippi Department of Education. The state appointed conservator took over the school district twice, the most recent in 2013, after it had failed 29 of 30 accreditation standards. Starkville’s county school district was an embarrassment for many, especially at Mississippi State University. Buffington calls it “a blight upon our county, a burden when attracting talented faculty to the university, and a hindrance for economic development.” In the late 1990s, the state legislature attempted to consolidate the district, but the Oktibbeha County Superintendent and members of the school board pulled out. Although there was much talk about consolidation over the years, no action was taken and no enthusiasm from county school districts. In 2013, the state legislature passed a bill that forced both school districts to merge. The legislature had ordered consolidation to occur prior to the 2015-16 school years. Buffington says, “I believe they wanted to be successful.” Although consolidation is popular with legislators on the Republican side, it has not yet produced any success. We were able to take advantage of the success of our city school district. We also had Mississippi State University willing to help, which was another advantage.” MSU has partnered with the school district in order to build a school on the campus for grades 6 through 7. Buffington says that while most Mississippi school districts are not facing consolidation, they can still learn valuable lessons from this case. He says that the most important thing is that local people take control of the process and influence the outcome. “We met for almost a year and discussed all ideas in public hearings, Twitter town hall meetings, and many discussions about children who live closer to schools in adjacent districts. Although it seemed natural to enroll them there this idea was not well received. Buffington says that there was something common about the decision to care for all the children in the district. This was because the city kids didn’t want them. “At each stage, we tried increase opportunities for county kids and also benefit city kids. The idea of Mississippi State partnering was born from those conversations. However, it was fraught with uncertainty and worry. Cheikh Taylor, father of two children from the merged school district, says that although I was supportive of consolidation, it still made me feel extremely anxious when it actually happened. “I didn’t want the experiment happening on my children’s time. “I didn’t want the uncertainty.” Haley Ward, 17, dreaded the thought of moving to Starkville High. Eight people were in her class at West Oktibbeha High. There were only 100 students. She says that everyone knew everyone, they were all aunties, cousins, and friends. Starkville High was a school with 1,500 students, and she would be entering a 31-member class. She said that there were rumors about her being mistreated. “My parents were really upset.” Ward has thrived under increased academic pressure at her new school, and she is looking forward to college. She says, “The change was hard, but it’s been the best thing that could happen to me.” Jakoby Jones (16 years old) moved to Starkville High to get a better education and a chance to play on the football team. There is also the possibility of being awarded a football scholarship at MSU. He says, “If I was still at East Oktibbeha the right people wouldn’t have seen me play.” Starkville-Oktibbeha was founded as a consolidated highschool in its first semester. Jones was on the team and won the state football championship. This added to the school’s success. It was also awarded the regional robotics championships. The school is one of two in Mississippi to be named to the College Board’s AP District Honor Roll. Jamie Jones transferred his two children from Starkville Academy into Starkville High after the consolidation process was complete. He says that there were courses at Starkville High which weren’t available at the academy. It’s important for other parents who have made the switch, but it’s not essential to all. Rex Buffington believes that the public high school provides a better education than the academy, particularly for students who are preparing to go to college. He says that it is still difficult for parents to make the change, but that’s their decision. “Those who choose to go to high school know that it’s best for their children, even if it means they have to overcome prejudice.” Starkville Academy representatives did not respond to requests to comment on consolidation. The biggest challenge has been logistical with 46 students of color and 250 from the county schools district joining unexpectedly. A huge flow chart is visible on the wall of Principal Baggett’s office. It shows how the school and its transport system were rearranged. Overcrowding is a problem in hallways as well as classrooms. Gridlock can sometimes occur at Malfunction Junction, an intersection. Keith Coble, a member on the school board thinks that a new building may be needed. Consolidating might end up costing more money than it saves. He estimates that closing two high schools will net $2 million in savings, which is just a drop in a bucket. “The county facilities are underutilized because they’re located in the wrong places. We need a $20 million building now.” However, almost everyone involved was surprised by how smoothly the consolidation went. Cheikh Taylor says Starkville is the best place right now. “I’m a proud parent and I love the quality of the education in Starkville. It was worth all the anxiety and fear we experienced as a community. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. 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