Union High School seniors Joshua Walton, left, and Noah Winstead are headed to Harvard and Columbia University in the fall.

UNION — This school district of 1,000 kids in small town Mississippi continues defying the odds.

After receiving the designation of the top ranked elementary school in the state, teachers, staff and community members are now celebrating two of its 60 graduating seniors as they prepare to attend Ivy League colleges in the fall.

To say the school district is tight knit is an understatement. A large portion of the district’s teachers and staff attended these schools themselves.

At a time when school district consolidation is a hot topic for the Legislature, Union School Board President David Leblanc says his district’s size is an asset, and consolidation would be harmful to students.

“We’re small enough that our teachers know these kids. And when I say know them, they know them. They know their family, their situations, they’re able to reach the kids because they have that type of relationship with the student and with the families,” Leblanc said.

But the school district’s size, while on one hand a strength, means fewer course and extracurricular options, a nominal property tax base, few community engagement options and, of course, little state funding on the other.

And the town’s rural location means community activity and culture are not easily accessible. With a median household income of under $30,000 per year and little industry, financial resources are also scarce.

Union Public School District Superintendent Lundy Brantley

But despite these odds, Union High School seniors Joshua Walton and Noah Winstead are headed to Harvard and Columbia University respectively in the fall. Superintendent Lundy Brantley says the two teenagers’ success is representative of the school district’s approach of doing big things with few resources.

Indeed the district motto, splashed on its website, reads: “Small in size, BIG in dreams.”

Spring semester at UHS

On a spring day at Union High School around lunchtime, the bell rings and a nearby rooster crows. The sounds of horses and cows can be heard faintly.

Winstead and Walton are both in chemistry, a class taught by Winstead’s brother. When they leave the classroom, Walton, whose accolades include but do not stop at student body president and band drum major, shakes hands with smiling students whose arms stretch out toward him. Unsurprisingly, political office is on his list of potential future aspirations.

Aside from the hard work, determination and intelligence required from anyone accepted into an Ivy League school, Walton and Winstead have their experience in small-town Union to thank for helping them get into Harvard and Columbia University.

“It’s a small town. It’s very sheltered,” Winstead said. “You saw it, there’s not a stoplight.”

Although Winstead and Walton come from different communities and backgrounds, they each share a common passion.

“As far as teenagers, (black and white) people have started to grow together at least in the school. Outside of the school is really where the problems lie,” Walton, who is African-American, said. “Me and him (Noah) talk about it all the time – racial equality – and what we want to do about it. Coming from two different communities, we’re both called maybe not back to Mississippi but (to do something) about the racial tension that exists everywhere.”

The latest example, Walton and Winstead said, was a comment on Facebook calling a black student at prom a “monkey.”

“Edgar Ray Killen (former Ku Klux Klan member who planned the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers) lived like 15 minutes away from here,” Winstead described. “My grandparents knew him. I’m not proud of it, but …”

Although neither know whether they will return to Mississippi in the future, Walton, who is originally from Clarksdale, wants to attend medical school and work in health policy, possibly after running for political office.

“Growing up in the Delta, I have a passion for politics. Poverty’s bad here (in Union), but in the Delta it’s 10 times worse. Just seeing kids come to school with 10-year-old backpacks,” he said. “(In my college essay) I talked about how I wanted to change that and how I wanted to be a voice for the people and help them out and help bring up my community.”

Both were also extremely involved in school, though a medical diagnosis in 8th grade led Winstead to get involved in weightlifting and bodybuilding, which he does outside of school.

Walton, on the other hand, takes involvement to a new level as student body president, student council president, drum major for the band, football player, powerlifter, among other activities. Both said the one club they wished the school offered is a drama club, which was canceled recently.

Academically, both Walton and Winstead took the “advanced route,” which consisted of several dual credit courses with the community college. The school offered only one Advanced Placement course last year, but has added two more this school year.

What makes Union special

Union Elementary School teacher Leanne Robinson watches her student work with the robotics equipment the school got through a grant.

With challenges including about 70 percent of the district’s students qualifying for free and reduced lunch (students in families at 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level), Brantley attributes the district and its students’ success partly to thinking outside the box in terms of curriculum and academics.

Brantley said they have introduced computer coding in the elementary and middle school and this year won a grant to place robotics equipment in every kindergarten through 4th grade classroom.

“We do a lot of things outside of just your normal curriculum that really broaden our students’ horizons a lot,” said Brantley, who has been at the district two years.

This year, the district brought back its vo-tech program on campus after sharing with a neighboring district. When the program made its return, the participation doubled to almost 100 students.

Leblanc said he and others in the district are equally as proud of the students who complete the school’s vo-tech program and enter into a successful career.

“We are just as happy for the two guys going to the Ivy Leagues as to the two guys going to go out and learn how to be a welder,” he said.

In the lower grades, number one ranked Union Elementary School Principal Deanna Rush (who also went to Union schools herself) said not only do the teachers know students and their families on a personal level, they know them on a numbers level as well.

“At any given time of the day of any given week, you can find our teachers teaching their hearts out,” she said. “They use the data we get from benchmark testing and progress monitoring to identify kids’ strengths and weaknesses and teach with that in mind, to figure out who needs enrichment and who needs remediation.”

Monday through Thursday of each week, students go to “hour of power,” or an hour of individualized instruction with other teachers.

Nearly half of the students at Union Elementary School are proficient in reading and math, and the school saw huge growth in all of its students, including the lowest performing. In 2016, nearly 93 percent of students passed the state’s 3rd grade reading assessment.

At the high school level, nearly half the students taking the statewide English II test scored a level 4 or 5, or proficient and advanced. At nearby Meridian High School, only about 17 percent of test takers scored in those same categories. The numbers are similar for the statewide Algebra I test.

Brantley also highlighted the involvement of students’ parents as essential to the success of the students.

“Our poverty rate is higher than what you would think but our kids are good kids, and their parents believe education is very important, which is probably the most important thing we have,” he said.

Leblanc echoed that statement.

“When you’ve got an FFA (Future Farmers of America) ag meeting and 100 people show up, that right there shows you education and the schools are important in the community,” he said.

Some of the parents in the district work as far away as Meridian, a 45-minute to hourlong commute, but live in Union so they can send their kids to the schools.

Robert Carleton, the father of a 4th grader and the treasurer of the parent teacher organization, said many of the parents and their parents also went to Union schools. Carleton graduated from Union High School in 1988, and his father and his wife’s mother both graduated 30 years earlier.

“There’s just an overall sense of pride in the school,” he said. For example, the band won the state championship seven years in a row. That success, he says, “spills over into the classroom.”

“There are also new families who move into the area,” Carleton said. “I see this a lot because I’m a real estate broker and people want to move into the school district, (even though) they may have a job in Meridian or Philadelphia or Newton.”

The teachers go the extra mile to involve parents as well, he says.

“They spend a lot of extra effort working with the parents and reaching out to parents and making sure the parents understand what’s going on,” Carleton said. “I believe it starts at the top and works its way down … It all goes back to the people. If a school district wants to try and emulate what we’ve done, they’ve got to have the right people and it’s got to start at the top.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.