DREW – After hearing an overview of a proposed charter school at a public hearing Wednesday evening, community members were vocal about their opposition to the proposal.

Dr. T.J. Graham, founding member and proposed executive director of Truth Academy STEAM Charter School, which is in its final application stage, spoke to what the school’s approach would be and explained what STEAM means.

The proposed school would use the STEM+STEAM approach to educate students, which Graham defined as using Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. After researching programs that fit the needs of the students, Graham said STEAM programs increase the engagement, creativity, thinking and innovation of the students by adding the arts. She said she wants students to be more hands on.

Graham went on to say the school will be an “equal opportunity educational institution that does not discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, or physical challenges.”  Empowering students, expanding teachers’ roles, and creating a small setting for students were among school characteristics she mentioned.

If approved by the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, the school will be housed using a portion of the former Drew High School, said Graham. Operations would begin fall 2018.

There was a packed house, but only a few stood up to speak. After the brief proposal given by Graham, a handful of people spoke in opposition of the charter school.

However, the mayor and potential school board members expressed their support.

“If it’s anything for the city, count me in. Anything from the city, count me out,” said Drew Mayor Harvey E. Burchfield.

“Ms. (Shantal) Johnson (proposed principal) came by my office a few weeks ago and I said, ‘Dream, it’s good to dream. Just don’t let the dream die’… I’m going to support her anyway I can,” he said.

Community member James Green said there was talk about a charter school last year, so he did research on it.  He said the funding for students in the public schools leave when the student attends a charter school, which factored into his reasoning for opposing the school. Because the schools are state charter schools, the per-pupil state funding for a student goes to a charter school if the student attends it.

“There is no guarantee that a charter school in Drew, Miss., is going to give your kids what they need in order to prepare themselves for life to the educational system … I don’t know the process, but it needs to be voted down,” he said.

“We have not had the opportunity to go to a charter school, but in Sunflower County, we have had a lot of successful people to graduate from public schools,” Green added.

Betty Petty, community member, speaks to the Drew crowd about schools being underfunded. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Through the current school system, there have been good teachers, lawyers, supervisors and more produced, despite the conditions, said resident Betty Petty. She added how the schools are already being underfunded by the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

“STEAM is looking to serve 140 children. If you do the calculation of the money loss, the money follows the child,” said Petty. “The charter schools will be privately owned, privately governed, and public funded.”

She said looking at Brown v Board of Education — the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated schools — there was separation in the law and it is still relevant today. “Let us not be the example they are looking for,” she said.

Jennie Lewis, one of the proposed board members for the charter school, clarified how the charter school would be funded.

“Yes, it comes from the state, yes it comes from the district, but it will also come from grant writing, fundraising efforts, and other sources,” said Lewis.

Lewis emphasized the school would not be a for-profit organization, adding that in some cases there would be free tuition and students outside of Sunflower County could enroll. After initially requiring students to attend charter schools located in their public school district, the Legislature changed the law to allow students to cross district lines to attend charter schools.

Lewis also noted that the charter school supporters aren’t trying to tear down the current schools, but they see them as a solution for those who are “falling through the cracks.”

“I hear a lot of people pretending that it’s A-Okay in the public schools. Stop it. It’s not. We all went,” she said. “I researched this before I got on board. My reputation is on the line. I believe in it, and I want you guys to have an open mind. Ask the board members… The more questions you ask the better. We all learn from it.”

Miskia Davis, superintendent of the Sunflower County Consolidated School District Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Caring about your reputation isn’t as important as the children, stressed Miskia Davis, superintendent of the Sunflower County district.

“Ms. Jennie said her name is on the line, but children’s lives are on the line and, to me, that’s more important than my name, her name or your name,” said Davis. “It’s not about a reputation or making a name for myself, its about these children. We’re the only advocates that they have.”

Davis said she commends the proposed board for wanting to help support the students, but she posed a few questions that needed answers including:

• What’s the proven track record of the people who are running the schools?

• Who have they taught?

• How many children have performed and become successful?

• What curriculum is being used? How will students be assessed?

• How will they know if students are improving?

“We’ve already lost a high school. Can this community afford to lose another school?” Davis asked. She received a resounding “no” from the audience.

Davis said if the charter school pulls students from Drew Hunter Middle School, the school would close, students would have no options, and many teachers and administrators will be out of jobs.

Tension rose as the hearing continued and people held their own conversations while some of the board members were speaking. After Lewis spoke, Krystal Cormack, chair of the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, had to ask the crowd to quiet down proceeding forward.

The board will make its final decision on which, if any, schools will be allowed to open at the Sept. 11 meeting. Two other schools — in Clarksdale and Canton school districts — are also seeking authorization to begin teaching students in Fall 2018.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

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.