GREENVILLE – After two consecutive years of receiving an F rating, activists and educators began conversations this week on how the school district here can learn from Jackson Public Schools and avoid a state takeover.

The Mississippi Association of Educators, the state’s oldest professional educators group, hosted an informational meeting here on Thursday aimed at educating the community on what a state takeover is and “garner community support behind Greenville Public Schools” to avoid a future takeover said Sheila Washington, UniServ Director for Mississippi Association of Educators.

There was a small crowd, consisting of about twenty people, but historical movements like the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Suffrage Movement start with small core groups engaging in conversation to agree on the direction they should be going, said Tyrone Hendrix, Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

“The movement that we’re pushing for are community schools. We’re not looking at takeovers,” Hendrix said. “What’s the alternative to a takeover? What’s the alternative to something that’s being taken away from a community?”

Optimism filled the room.

At the end of the meeting, every person agreed to attend more meetings in hopes of finding solutions to better improve their schools.

There are seven school districts in the state in danger of being taken over. Greenville Public School District received an F rating for the second year in a row which leaves them eligible to join the Achievement School District, although the Achievement School District task force chose only to recommend Noxubee County, Humphrey County, and the Jackson Public Schools districts as candidates to be placed into the district next year. The State Board of Education will make a decision on which districts join at their Dec. 14 meeting.

This means the local school superintendent would be replaced by a state-appointed administrator and the local school board would be replaced by the state board.

Washington said this is a chance for the community to take back the power.

But first, community members voiced concerns on what they believe are challenges the schools face, such as under-staffing of certified teachers and what some say is too much state testing.

“I think the biggest challenge is people are not committed to the process of educating our children holistically,” said State Rep. John Hines.

“I think they like the fanfare of the outdated programs and the extracurricular stuff but they don’t really want to put in extra work to make sure the kids have everything they need to be successful.”

He went on to say he’s willing to have conversations with parents and instructors directly and indirectly to find out what the problems are.

Juliet Thomas, community advocate, said one of the issues is that school isn’t fulfilling anymore. Children and teachers are unhappy, she said, and teachers are overworked and underappreciated.

Lack of communication between teachers and parents was another concern.

Community advocate Juliet Thomas says the lack of communication among teachers is a huge problem. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

“If children are doing well on your test, what can I implement in my class? Nobody wants to ask in fear of saying, ‘you’re not doing your job’,” said Thomas.

Not only teachers, but parents and students should be held accountable too, said Chiconna Bowman, 20 year veteran educator.

“Most of us here are educators. Where are the parents?” asked Bowman. “This is a positive community meeting talking about education, but if something negative goes on in the school, [the parents] will rush there and have something to say,”

Community advocate Chiconna Bowman stands to show she’s committed to helping Greenville Public Schools. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Despite the difficulties, participants reflected on the good things the district has offered, both past and present.

Excelling both athletically and academically in the past was what State Rep. Hines was proud of.

“Everything that we did was in a spirit of excellence. We were feared and respected,” he said. “Now, we’re laughed at.”

A professional environment for learning was nostalgia for some.

“Teachers dressed professional and you could separate the teachers from the students,” said Thomas. “Not because of the uniforms, it has gotten relaxed.”

Tim McCluskey, organizational specialist for the National Educators Association, asked participants to look ahead by creating their own headlines of how they envisioned their community three years from now.

A few included:

— “Greenville is fully funding their schools”

— “Highly paid staff, professional teachers and educators in Greenville”

— “Greenville leads the state in teacher-student ratio”

— “Greenville builds new schools to deal with growing population”

— “Greenville students find good paying jobs”

It is important to “create a space for people’s insight, their talent, their grace, their wisdom to be listened to and to be heard,” said McCluskey.

Hendrix emphasized that “this has to be a bottom up community driven movement” for Greenville as it was for the Jackson Public School District when the community rallied together to stop the takeover of its schools.

Teacher union leader: Stand up for Jackson Public Schools

In August, the Mississippi Department of Education concluded an 18-month investigative audit that found the JPS district in violation of 75 percent of state accreditation standards. The audit found problems involving reporting data accurately to the Department of Education, district record keeping, teachers working outside their areas of endorsement, unlicensed teaching staff and an inadequate amount of school support services available to students.

Bryant declined to issue a state of emergency which would have allowed the state to take over JPS, but the district is still required to respond to the audit findings with a detailed plan that outlines how to address the issues it highlighted in the audit conducted by Mississippi Department of Education.

“They weren’t expecting for 250 people to show up at two o’clock for a press conference and rally the day before the accreditation meeting. They weren’t expecting for 750 people to show up over a course of three days at 10 o’clock in the daytime for the accreditation meeting that they had,” said Hendrix.

Out of 225 organizations, community members and leaders, all agreed that they wanted to stand for JPS, he said, and this was significant due to the repetitive narrative of “the community don’t care about the school district.”

“We showed, the community showed that everybody cares about Jackson Public Schools. We just have to create the avenue for them to get involved,” said Hendrix.

There is an attack on public schools in Mississippi, but finding a way to address the problems is the first step, he said. Making sure to have the Greenville schools a reflection of what is needed in the community and have it tailored specifically to those children is a way to approach it, he said.

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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.