Veronica Gearring, 15, works on her laptop while in class at Greenville Public Early College, located at Mississippi Valley State University, Thursday, October 18, 2018.

GREENVILLE – The daily 5:30 a.m. wake up is worth it to Quincy Wilson. A freshman at Greenville Public Early College High School, Wilson boards the bus every morning by 6:45 and gets off about 40 miles later at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena.

“You can do your homework (on the bus) if you need to,” Wilson said of the almost one-hour long bus ride. “We do have a lot of it so it is useful to have some time to do that on the bus.”

He’s one of 26 students who will spend his high school career on MSVU’s campus taking high school and college courses. By the time he graduates high school, he could earn up to two years’ worth of college credit.

“I chose it because I knew it was a great opportunity for me. I wanted to attend early college so I could get that head start,” Wilson said.  

Quincy Wilson, 14, is photographed at Greenville Public Early College, located at Mississippi Valley State University, Thursday, October 18, 2018.

Greenville Public Early College High School is one of two early college programs to open in the state this year (the other is at Tougaloo College). This is the first partnership though between a local school district and a public four-year university.

I think (the partnership) is very significant because a lot of our students do leave and go to MVSU. To be able to partner with them and have students coming out where they can enter Valley as possibly a sophomore is just wonderful,” said Greenville Public School Superintendent Janice Page.

These early college schools are a part of the Mississippi Department of Education’s push to create more innovative schools and districts.

Dana Bullard, MDE Bureau Director of Innovation and Accelerated programs, said that these schools sprang up in areas where the community was interested in innovative education and meeting their students’ needs.

“If we see many of our students not going to college and we see that there is a gap there [then] they’re trying to look for innovative ways to engage these students back into the education process,” Bullard said. “Most of the students that are going to these early college high schools are your students who may not be involved in sports or band or other activities, and they really don’t feel a connection to the school itself. They could be at a risk for dropping out.”

During the 2017-18 school year, Greenville Public Schools had the fourth highest dropout rate in the state, with 22.7 percent dropping out of the of the 4,877 person student population.

All of the district’s schools receive Title I funds, which go to low-income schools.  Eight of the district’s 10 schools report that 100 percent of their students come from low-income households. The other two schools, Akin Elementary School and Greenville High School respectively report 91 and 84 percent of their students are classified as coming from low-income households. The district’s accountability score rose from an F in the 2016-17 school year to a D this last year.

Census data shows that median household income is about $27,344 in the town of roughly 32,600. Greenville’s population is about 80 percent African-American and 20 percent white while the school district is 98 percent African-America.

Bullard said this program specifically aims to target students who would be first-generation college goers.

“Many times [these students] graduate from high school and they just don’t make that transition to the college – not because they’re not prepared, but because they don’t know how to do it. Their knowledge about what it’s like on a college campus is very limited, particularly in a rural area,” Bullard said.

Isolation and lack of access to rigorous coursework plagues rural districts nationwide.

A recent study published by the Center for Public Education made the case that this happens in part because, “the national conversation around education often neglects the perspectives, needs, and circumstances of rural America.” This study found also that students in rural areas consistently have limited access to higher level coursework: while 95 percent of suburban students had access to Advanced Placement courses in 2015, 73 percent rural students had the same access. 

Transportation, Bullard said, has a lot to do with that: “Those children are on a bus a long way during the day to get this access that they need, to see a different culture, a different school culture, and climate.”

Because getting rural students to college campuses usually requires longer bus rides than it would for students in urban or suburban settings, transportation costs become a higher percentage of a rural school’s budget, placing additional strain on these districts. 

The state’s education funding formula factors in enrollment and local revenue to calculate how many state dollars each district will be allocated. After local, state and federal revenue is all calculated, rural schools are typically working with a smaller budget because they have fewer students and a lower property tax base. According to 2016-2017 state revenue numbers, nine out of the bottom 10 districts with lowest overall funding were located in rural areas. 

This combination of higher transportation costs and smaller budgets makes it more challenging to get rural students access to high-level courses, said Eddie Anderson, director of Delta Area Association of Improvement of Schools.

“Most districts in our area right now are on survival mode. And when you’re on survival mode, we take care of the things we know have to be taken care of. If I can’t afford other things, I only take care of things that have to be done. Schools are very much to that point right now where the dollars are not there,” Anderson said in a previous interview.

“Now, for Cleveland students, at least they have Delta State sitting right here that they can work with, but now if you’re Humphrey’s County where do your children go?” he said.

In Greenville’s case, MSVU helped cover the bus costs. The university provides the bus to take the children to and from class every day and the school district pays the bus driver’s salary. Page said this agreement helps the school district greatly.

One of the things that we know we’re looking at trying to improve is our bus fleet. We’re working on having the number of busses we need to run our regular route. We want to continue to make sure that we’re able to run our bus route and if we pulled a bus out to go back and forth to Valley then we could do it but it would just be a little tight, a little stressful,” Page said.

The critical teacher shortage (which is heightened in the Delta) also hinders rural students from having access to high-level courses. Last school year, Greenville Public School District had only one uncertified teacher, making it a district with one of the lowest uncertified teacher percentages in the state.

But at other Delta school districts, that number is often much higher. At Holmes County School District, for example, 34 percent of the teaching staff last year wasn’t certified. Without educators properly certified to teach these classes, the classes can’t happen. 

Administrator Pamela Ward, center, helps Giana Williams, 15, left, and Alahna Wigfall, 15, with biology classwork at Greenville Early College, located at Mississippi Valley State University, Thursday, October 18, 2018.

We have staff that teaches dual enrollment classes on campus, but I would think in a lot of rural schools they may not have that opportunity,” said Pamela Ward, principal of Greenville Public Early College High School.

The early college programs are equipped with both properly certified high school teachers who can conduct the students’ regular high school courses as well as a university professor for the college level courses they take.

Ultimately though, bringing programs like this to Mississippi helps give public school students the opportunity to have options with their education, Bullard said. 

“We want them to have a choice about what they’re going to do when they get out of high school,” Bullard said. “And a meaningful experience in high school will give them those qualifications.”

This story was reported in partnership with Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Alexandra Watts. Watts is a Report for America corps. member who joined MPB this summer to cover issues important in the Delta. A radio version of this story will air on MPB next week. Report for America is a journalism initiative that works to put young journalists in local newsrooms throughout the country.

As part of Mississippi Today’s ongoing series – Newsroom from the Taproom – Executive Director Mary Margaret White will moderate a panel discussion with Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons Oct. 19 at 4:30 p.m. at the Mighty Mississippi Brewing Company in Greenville.

Mayor Simmons will be joined by Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Alexandra Watts, Mississippi Today reporter Kelsey Davis, and Greenville Renaissance Scholars CEO Jon Dolperdang. Doors open at 4 p.m.

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.