Credit: Delta State University

CLEVELAND – Past issues that hampered education in Mississippi provide a guidepost for how to improve the state’s education system, panelists said this week at Delta State University.

Stronger administrators and teachers, courses designed to help students achieve, a recognition of historical contributions of communities of color and aggressive steps to truly provide equal opportunity were among solutions offered.

The comments came at Delta State University’s fourth annual Winning the Race conference on Monday and Tuesday, which had a theme of Advancing Education in the Mississippi Delta.

“The solutions are there and in our face most of the time,” said Ivory Toldson, professor at Howard University and President and CEO of QEM Network, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit dedicated to improving education for underrepresented students.

Toldson said if a school is low performing, get the best teacher in that school. He said if you’re in the worst state, go to the best performing district in that state and look at their outlines. He said its not about copying, but looking at who’s doing things the best.

Those comments were echoed by Dr. Virgil Belue, former Superintendent of the Clinton Public School District, who was challenged in the 1970s with creating an integrated school system in just four weeks.

Belue said it is important for schools to be given the best qualified administration and are supported with an appropriate budget. He said providing equal opportunity for all students is another solution.

Having real conversations about race also is a part of the solution, said Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. He said students, parents, and the community should have a seat at the table when decisions are being made.

Belue said some challenges he faced in Clinton in the late 1970s included questioning whether to bus or not to bus, staying up-to-date on dialogue, convincing people that desegregation doesn’t lower test scores, and convincing minority parents that their students can learn like the other students.

Belue said he created a system where there was equal representation of black and white students in elections for positions like being on the homecoming court.

“Desegregation in itself doesn’t cause any problems,” said Toldson. “You have to fix the educational system. You have to fix what’s broken.”

The reasons for segregation are things like redlining and carefully constructed policies that divert resources into the other school, said Toldson.

“The race difference isn’t the real problem,” he said. “It’s the resource difference.”

“United States promises a free education for all children in the country, but we aren’t seeing that promise delivered in black and brown communities,” said Villanueva.

Toldson argued that with schools today, looking on a policy level and where investments are being made, it’s not about adding advanced courses to the instruction or giving students something to be inspired by, but it’s the things that are working against the school’s needs.

Toldson gave an example of the problem of how there are more black students in Jackson who are referred to law enforcement by their schools than enrolled in physics or calculus courses. He cited as his source the Civil Rights Data Collection, a U.S. Department of Education website that collects information regarding student enrollment and educational programs.

“When I go to schools and they invite me to talk about how to resolve some of these issues of inequity, and I ask them why don’t you have the type of courses that these students need to prepare themselves for college, they’ll give me every excuse in the world why they don’t have these classes,” said Toldson.

Toldson noted that schools aren’t setting students up to be prepared for college. He said if colleges require students to have a foreign language, good grade point average or write good essays, students should receive training on these things.

“Yet, when state policymakers come together and say what the schools need, they talk about testing; they talk about discipline, they talk about zero tolerance policy; they talk about a dress code. They talk about everything but what’s going to prepare the students for college,” said Toldson.

To resolve these inequities and educate children to do great things in life, Toldson said it is key to begin thinking differently on how to mend educational inequities and providing students with tools they need based on the best research without being stereotypical.

Villanueva agreed that testing is a huge issue. He said he has heard this from students and parents across the country. 

“This becomes a vehicle or process to put people on a certain track, but also is a way to really discriminate and isolate other folks from opportunities,” said Villanueva. He said there is a need to measure success, but it has gone overboard with testing.

He said one of the causes of problems in education is a major disinvestment of resources.

He said across the county, most of the failing schools are in communities of color and its because they are underfunded.

“Where we’re grossly under-funding education, these schools begin to fail which paves the way for this narrative around failing schools and the state needs to take over them and remove local and community control,” said Villanueva. “That also paves the way for privatization.”

School climate was another issue with education, said Villanueva. He said there’s too much over-policing in the schools in the communities of color.

Dominique Scott, senior undergraduate student at the University of Mississippi, said there’s a problem with the “eurocentric, white-centric” college curriculum. She said because of this, students perpetuate violence towards students who don’t look like them because of their lack of knowledge of the history that has shaped their worlds.

“We should be implementing curriculum that has a specific focus on being holistic and multicultural that drives from the historic experiences of marginalized groups and not just from telling the history of straight, white men,” said Scott.

Scott said one of the most important things is to “lift as we climb” and give back to their hometowns.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.