Amanda Johnson, Executive Director of Clarksdale Collegiate poses in front of the school's new home at St. Paul's United Methodist Church Credit: Staci Lewis

CLARKSDALE — The first charter school in rural Mississippi is opening its doors in six months, and although school officials are making progress, they’re still dealing with a long to-do list – hiring staff, administrators, and assistants, buying buses and setting bus routes – all while working to win over a skeptical community.

But Clarksdale Collegiate has made progress and is checking off items one-by-one, says executive director Amanda Johnson.

Johnson, former director of a KIPP charter school in Arkansas, said Clarksdale Collegiate identified St. Paul’s United Methodist Church as its first — albeit temporary — home, and was able to finalize the deal on Friday. Johnson notes that she is happy with the fundraising effort so far and that enrollment is off to a “very good start.”

Initially, Clarksdale Collegiate proposed to begin operation with 150 students in grades K-2. Currently, they have received 69 applications for students to be on board. The first application deadline was Jan. 30 and the majority, if not all, of the applicants are from Coahoma County or reside in Clarksdale, said Johnson.

While each step represents a milestone in the process of getting ready for the start of school next fall, it’s not lost on Johnson that not everyone in the community shares her excitement over the potential for Clarksdale Collegiate.

In an interview with Mississippi Today last week, Johnson explains that there’s a critical need in the Delta to improve schools.

“Clarksdale Collegiate feels that we are part of the solution of providing high quality education to kids within Clarksdale. … You can’t deny that there is not a critical need here. That’s just not up for debate,” she said.

“When you talk to community members, when you talk to parents, even when you talk to students, there is a common refrain from them which is that (our schools) need to improve and there needs to more options for students or better opportunities for students. So that has been something I’ve heard from people of all sides of this issue,” she said.

But many in the community worry that the school will drain resources – including educators – from the existing school districts that are already struggling and have been underfunded for years. Others are opposed but also open to the potential solutions the charter may provide.

Ray Sykes, a Clarksdale traditional public school backer, said although he is not in favor of charter schools, it is now a part of Clarksdale’s community and all schools must do well.

“We have to make sure our (traditional) public schools (district) works and our charter school works. Do I agree with it? No. Did it get approved and passed – however it got approved and passed – yes. Guess who it belongs to? It’s our charter school,” said Sykes.

And for those who are hoping to enroll their children in Clarksdale Collegiate, it’s about an honest evaluation of what’s best for their kids.

“If you want to kick it because it’s taking money, then that’s unfortunate for the people who run public schools … All they heard was they don’t want it cause it takes money from schools,” said Shirley Johnson, who enrolled her granddaughter, Lauren Bailey, as an upcoming second grader at Clarksdale Collegiate.

Lauren, a star student who has been recognized as a superintendent’s scholar, maintained an A average, and received awards for scoring high on her Math assessments as a first grader at Booker T. Washington Elementary International Studies Magnet School, her grandmother said.

And while Shirley Johnson felt that Booker T. Washington teachers did an “excellent job” of teaching her granddaughter, she was concerned that the school’s curriculum wasn’t “what’s best for the kids” in terms of advancing accomplished students.

“For instance, if kids are in class and learn how to add numbers, Lauren and others have mastered that so they don’t get to move on,” said the Clarksdale resident. “They get stuck because they are waiting on other students.”

So, when the debate arose over whether to be in support of or opposed to the charter, Shirley Johnson said she decided to do her own research on charter schools and what Clarksdale Collegiate plans to offer. She said she owed that to her granddaughter.

What she says she found – more resources and curriculum flexibility, a structured learning environment, and hopefully better prepared students for college success – is why she committed to Clarksdale Collegiate. She stated these are some of the things the traditional public school system is lacking.

“We can’t always go along with the masses when we’re making decisions that we think are right for ourselves and our babies. Somebody is going to be different, if we have a legit reason, then I’ll be different,” Shirley Johnson added.

Others are not as convinced that the positives outweigh the negatives.

Dennis Dupree, superintendent of the Clarksdale Municipal School District Credit: Clarksdale Municipal School District

Last month, Clarksdale Municipal School District Superintendent Dennis Dupree travelled to Jackson to speak on a panel about school funding, charter schools and vouchers.

He said the authorizer board is creating a “perfect storm” in the Mississippi Delta that didn’t need to be created.

“There wasn’t any reason for (Clarksdale Collegiate) because we’ve never been fully funded but once … we don’t have teachers, where are the teachers going to come from? We’re a very small district and right now we’re sitting at 22 teachers short,” he said.

“(The Delta) is a very unique region so when you’ve got a teacher shortage situation in the whole region, now you’re bringing in an additional school system, that’s going to even take away from that population. And who’s to say that there won’t be another charter school to pop up somewhere else in the Delta?” Dupree said to Mississippi Today.

Amanda Johnson, leader of Clarksdale Collegiate, walking through the halls of the school site. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Clarksdale Collegiate was approved in September by the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board and stakes its claim on being ‘unapologetically college prep’ starting with kindergartners through second-graders. Long-term plans envision an open enrollment K-8 school by the 2028 school year.

Over the course of two years, the school’s goal is to raise $1.5 million. They have currently raised $725,000 through grants from foundations, said Johnson.

Amanda Johnson, right, speaks at a panel discussion on charter schools in rural Mississippi hosted by Mississippi Today in October in Clarksdale. Also pictured are state Rep. Jah Hughes, D-Oxford, and Krystal Cormack, chair of the state Charter Authorizer Board. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

After receiving grant money and funds from private donors, Johnson said they are “well on our way” with fundraising, but they are also excited to apply for the charter school program grant.

Back in October, the charter school authorizer board received a 5-year, $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help future charter schools get off the ground with start-up costs such as hiring staff, teachers, and securing facilities and providing technical assistance to existing ones.

Clarksdale Collegiate is the only charter in the state currently eligible to apply for thousands of dollars to help with start-up costs if they meet the criteria.

The school isn’t dependent upon these funds, said Johnson, but she noted it will “allow us to really feel secure and allow us to do the things we need to do now in order to set up the school for success,” such as purchasing buses earlier than July, which are a “huge cost.”

The controversial topic of charter schools has often led to misunderstandings, especially in this community, of whether they are private or public. In fact, charter schools are free public schools that cannot charge tuition and allow teachers and administrators more freedom in student instruction. They adhere to the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public schools.

Longtime resident Sykes fears that there are teachers in the traditional public schools system lined up to get a job at Clarksdale Collegiate.

“I know teachers who are pro-charter schools that say, ‘Charter schools are the way to go,’ but they’re in public schools not necessarily functioning the way they should, and that becomes a conflict,” said Sykes.

“I see a lot of supporters within the school. Do they even care about public education anymore? It concerns me and I know a lot of the teachers personally so I look at that and say what’s difference between (traditional) public (school) and charter – charter schools all of a sudden has the answer. The public schools been trying to find the answer for a long time.”

Others who are supporters of this new school said that this is a great opportunity to better educate students.

At a charter school hearing in Clarksdale in August, a former educator said increasing literacy time with students was one reasons she was in support of this school. A lifelong resident mentioned this school can produce better trained professionals in the workforce.

Charter school debate: ‘Better’ or ‘just different?’

Sykes worries that students will be handpicked and the students who struggle the most aren’t going to be enrolled at the charter school. He said he has seen the community trying to rally behind the local school districts here, but this could have happened without entertaining a conversation about charter schools.

Conversations about how to improve the struggling districts – hiring certified teachers and addressing under funding, for instance – have yet to happen, said Sykes.

“I commend whoever came up with the idea of charter schools, the state of Mississippi for getting it passed, but I do believe that the biggest issue is that there’s no emphasis on improving our public schools. Bringing the charter school is not going to make the public schools step up.”

Community buy-in and hiring staff – topics of concern during one of Mississippi Today’s panel discussions on viability in charter schools – remain challenges today.

Concern in Clarksdale over charter school

Before the charter school was approved, meeting with community organizations, holding interest meetings for the public, and having one-on-one conversations with residents were a few things the school officials did to try to gain interest from the public, said Johnson.

To attract students and teachers, advertising through social media, local billboards, and knocking on doors has helped increase their presence, she said. Applications have been received for the first round of students, but no full-time staff has been hired as of yet.

Final interviews with potential candidates for teacher positions and Director of Operations are being conducted and applications for teacher assistants and office manager positions will be available on the website soon, Johnson added.

Contributing: Kayleigh Skinner

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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.