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Richard Grant’s Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta has been the best-selling book in Mississippi for the past eight months. Grant, who grew up in London and now lives in Jackson, has written four books of non-fiction and articles for Smithsonian magazine, The New York Times and Garden and Gun. This is his first article for Mississippi Today.
Apprehension gripped Oktibbeha County last year as its two school districts prepared to consolidate. The west and east county high schools, both small, failing, and over 90 percent African American, were closed down, and their students enrolled at Starkville High, a much larger, wealthier school with a good track record in academics and athletics.
“A lot of people were predicting a huge white flight from Starkville High into Starkville Academy when the county kids arrived,” says Rex Buffington, executive director of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership, who chaired the consolidation commission.
Others feared turf wars and gang violence. “County kids and parents were worried about ‘inner city kids’ and how bad they were,” says David Baggett, the principal of Starkville High. “In the city, they worried about rough and tough county kids. There were going to be 10 fights a day, that’s what I kept hearing.”
Aside from the occasional scuffle, there has been no violence between the two groups. And instead of white flight, the opposite has occurred. Forty six white students have left Starkville Academy and another private Christian school and enrolled in the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated High School, which is now 67% African American.
“A generation ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” says Buffington. “It’s still a work in progress, but we see real potential here for the long-term health of our community.”
Since 2012, Mississippi lawmakers have approved consolidation of 13 school districts in the state, cutting the total number from 152 to 139. Proponents of consolidation, such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, argue that it’s a way to spend less money on administrative costs and get more money into classrooms where it counts. Consolidation generally has been opposed by local communities, who are attached to their schools and the jobs they provide.
“In most cases, we’ve seen one poor, struggling, overwhelmingly black school district merged with another to save money, with no resulting improvement in academic performance and fewer savings than expected,” says Jake McGraw, an education specialist at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. “But Starkville-Oktibbeha is different. It’s the first time a failing district has merged with a successful one, and it’s the only merger between districts with significantly different racial compositions.”
The great disparity between the Starkville and Oktibbeha County school districts can be explained by forced desegregation and white flight in the 1960s and 1970s.
“When integration came, the districts were realigned, so the white suburbs were included in the city school district,” says Buffington of the Stennis Institute. “The county district was left nearly all black with a very low tax base. It was terribly unfair.”
Over decades, the Starkville city schools became racially mixed, enjoying good parental support from blacks and whites and a healthy tax base. Whites who didn’t like the mix usually sent their children to Starkville Academy. Meanwhile, the county school district struggled badly, routinely receiving D and F performance grades from the Mississippi Department of Education and running into financial problems. It was taken over twice by a state-appointed conservator, most recently in 2013 after it failed 29 of the 30 accreditation standards.
For many in Starkville, particularly at Mississippi State University, the county school district was a source of shame and embarrassment. Buffington describes it as “a blight on our county, a burden when it came to attracting talented faculty at the university and a hindrance to economic development.”
The state legislature first attempted consolidation in the late 1990s, but the Oktibbeha County superintendent and school board members pulled out of the deal. There was talk of consolidation for years afterwards, but no action, and no enthusiasm from the county school district. Then, in 2013, state lawmakers passed a bill forcing the two school districts to consolidate. In 2014, the legislature ordered consolidation to take place prior to the 2015-16 school year.
“I think they wanted to achieve a success,” says Buffington. “Consolidation is popular among legislators, at least on the Republican side, but it really hadn’t produced any successful results yet. We had the advantage of a successful city school district. And we had Mississippi State University wanting to be part of the solution, which was another huge advantage.” MSU is partnering with the school district to build a new school on campus for grades 6-7.
Most Mississippi school districts facing consolidation don’t have these advantages, but they still can learn important lessons from what happened here, says Buffington.
“The most important thing is for local people to take charge of the process and shape the outcome,” he says. “We met for nearly a year and worked through all kinds of ideas in public hearings and Twitter town hall meetings.”
There were long discussions about the children who lived closer to schools in adjoining districts. It seemed logical to enroll them there, but this idea gained little traction.
“There was something unifying about the decision to take care of all the kids in our district, because the county kids felt that the city didn’t want them,” says Buffington. “At every stage, we tried to increase opportunities for county children and also benefit city children. From those discussions came the idea of partnering with Mississippi State.”
Nonetheless, the process was fraught with distrust and worry.
“I was in favor of consolidation, but I still felt extremely apprehensive when it started to actually happen,” says Cheikh Taylor, the father of two children in the merged school district. “I didn’t want the experiment to happen on my kids’ time. I didn’t want the uncertainty.”
Seventeen-year-old Haley Ward dreaded the idea of moving to Starkville High. At West Oktibbeha High, eight people were in her class, and only 100 at the school.
“Everybody knew everybody, it was all friends, aunties, cousins,” she says. At Starkville High, she would enter a class of 31 in a school of 1,500 students where she knew almost no one. “There were rumors we were going to be mistreated,” she said. “My parents were really upset.”
Ward, however, has thrived under the increased academic pressure at her new school and is now looking forward to college.
“The change has been hard, but it’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says.
For Jakoby Jones, 16, moving to Starkville High has meant a better education, a chance to shine in the football team and the very real possibility of a football scholarship to MSU.
“If I was still at East Oktibbeha, the right people would never have seen me play,” he says. In its first semester as a consolidated high school, with Jones on the team, Starkville-Oktibbeha won the state football championship, which added to the aura of success at the school. It also won the regional robotics championships and is one of only two schools in Mississippi to make the College Board’s AP District Honor Roll.
Jamie Jones moved his two children from Starkville Academy to Starkville High before the consolidation process was completed.
“There were courses at Starkville High that weren’t offered at the academy, and that was my main reason,” he says. “That’s important to other parents who’ve made the switch, but not all of them. The big thing, of course, is that it’s free.”
Rex Buffington says the public high school offers a better education than the academy, especially for students preparing for college.
“But it’s still hard for some parents to make the switch and that’s their choice,” he says. “Those that do choose the high school know it’s the best thing to do for their kids, I think, even if they have to overcome some prejudice to do it.”
Representatives of Starkville Academy did not respond to requests for comment on consolidation.
With 46 white students entering unexpectedly, plus 250 from the county school district, the biggest challenges have turned out to be logistical. On the wall of Principal Baggett’s office, a massive flow chart indicates how the school and its transportation system have been reconfigured. Overcrowding is now a serious problem, not in the classrooms but the hallways. Gridlock sometimes happens at an intersection known as Malfunction Junction.
Keith Coble, a member of the school board, thinks that a new building is needed and that consolidation may end up costing more than it saves.
“The net savings from closing the two high schools is $2 million, which is a drop in the bucket,” he says. “The county facilities are now underutilized, because they’re in the wrong place. And we need a $20 million building right now.”
Nevertheless, nearly everyone involved has been surprised at how well the consolidation has gone.
“Starkville is the place to be right now,” says Cheikh Taylor. “As a parent, I’m thrilled by the quality of the education here. All the anxiety we went through as a community, all the apprehension and rumors, it wasn’t worth it.”