Fourth grade students at Kirkpatrick Health and Medical Science Magnet School, in Clarksdale, Miss. makes silly faces with Tom Davidson, CEO of EverFi, during his September 19 visit. Kirkpatrick Health and Medical Science Magnet School was the only school in the district to achieve an A.

CLARKSDALE – Climbing the ladder in the education arena was second nature to Dennis Dupree. 

From teaching in the classroom and coaching in the Oxford schools for 11 years to leading schools in the Columbus district for 15 years, the Jackson native who has been in education for over 40 years wanted more: to become the head of a school district.

Dennis Dupree welcomed the challenges he faced in the Delta.

After serving as interim superintendent for the Columbus schools, Dupree felt he had acquired the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to become superintendent, he said. And in 2007, he applied for a school chief position, but he was not chosen.

Then Dupree received a phone call from a search committee inquiring about his interest in taking the reins of a school district in the Delta. He was hired that April.

“I can not tell you the number of friends that I have that tried to talk me out of taking this job in the Delta,” said Dupree.

“I knew it was going to be challenging but I was up for the challenge,” he added. “I could’ve gone other places but I wanted to be a part of this situation.”

Dupree was ecstatic about his future in Clarksdale. But nothing could have really prepared him for the depth of challenges he and the district faced in 2007: entrenched poverty, lack of parental engagement and a severe teacher shortage that would only thicken as the years went on.

Throughout his tenure, Dupree and his administration made strides:

• They passed an $8.5 million bond issue to build a new athletic stadium at Clarksdale High School and repair schools

• Constructed new baseball and softball fields on the high school’s campus

• Built a new central office

• Provided technology for teachers and iPads to every student

• Converted middle schools to magnet schools

• Adopted “school choice” for elementary schools

Etta Turner shares a smile as she sits in her office.

“It has just been great (working with Dupree),” said Etta Turner, administrative secretary who’s set to retire after 40 years in the district. “I can really use the word awesome with him because he’s so laid back, not crowding you, and he’ll do his best to try to help.”

However, Dupree struggled to keep certified teachers in the classrooms, improve the district’s accountability ratings and rebuild the district’s reputation after testing irregularities at one of the elementary schools. And, he saw the state’s first rural charter school, Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School open, transferring some funding and students out of the district.

After 12 years of tussling to improve the district academically, Dupree announced he’s set to retire on June 28.

Declining teachers, students and accountability ratings

When he arrived during the 2007-2008 school year, 82 teachers hadn’t obtained full certification in the district. After five years, the number decreased to only 30. And in the 2014-2015 year, it had gotten to its lowest point with only nine uncertified teachers.

However, the district remains classified as low performing, bouncing between D and F every year since 2013, when the Mississippi Department of Education established the A through F school rating system under the Every Student Succeeds Plan. Hence, the model has changed from year to year. And the state has had multiple state tests in three years – Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT2), PARCC and the Mississippi Assessment Program (MAAP).

“Every year it’s less students. In the Delta, you’re dealing with economic challenges and people leaving,” said Kenneth Gooden, school board member. “You hear the guidelines from the state Department of Education, and you think you get it, then they change (cut scores).”

Two years after the inception of the new accountability model, Dupree faced scrutiny and lost more teachers after a state test teaching scandal at Heidelberg Elementary School in 2015.

After a nearly three year investigation, in 2017 the Mississippi Department of Education suspended the educator license of Lowanda Tyler-Jones, former principal at Heidelberg,  for 20 years for directing and encouraging cheating on the 2013 MCT2 test, reported Mississippi Today. Three other teachers were also charged with cheating. The testing irregularities were first highlighted by the Clarion-Ledger in 2014. The Mississippi Department of Education then conducted its own investigation.

That incident was one the most difficult times, said Dupree, noting he had planned to retire right before it happened. But, he stayed.

“I wouldn’t dare leave my people to go through something like that. I wasn’t going to leave them to go through that situation, I wanted to make sure I stayed on board to get them through that,” said Dupree.

As a result, administrators struggled once again to find certified teachers. The number of noncertified teachers quadrupled over three years from only nine to 38 in 2017-2018. The district received an F rating.

However, Kirkpatrick Health & Medical Science Magnet School worked its way to being the only school in the district to achieve an A.

Delta elementary school first in nation to pilot online program with emphasis on compassion

“We lost a lot of teachers (after the cheating scandal). People don’t realize that but we lost a lot of teachers because no one actually wanted to be associated with that sign over your head and it was all across the state,” said Dupree.

“But we worked through those things and you move on. I didn’t talk about it a lot. I didn’t want my people talking about it a lot because we had to concentrate on those students and that’s what we did.”

The teacher shortage has only heightened since the passage of the Critical Teacher Shortage Act of 1998, a measure designed to ease the shortage, by placing teachers in geographic shortage areas. 

“We hadn’t been successful from the academic front from the way I was hoping that we could be,” said Dupree. “And I think we got some things in place now that’ll get us where we need to be.”

District at ‘crossroads’

After trying to rebuild the district, Dupree along with the other traditional public school leaders faced a new challenge: the state’s first rural charter school opening here last year. Critics argue that charter schools sap public school funding from traditional public schools. Proponents counter that charter schools are not a threat, but an opportunity to build on education opportunities in rural communities.  

Discussion in Clarksdale: Are charter schools viable in rural Mississippi?

Dupree has been a vocal opponent of  charter schools.

“I’m a public school proponent and with the charter school situation I’ve made my voice known for that and somehow we need to work hand in hand and make public schools the best they can be. (Traditional public schools) are gonna have a majority of the students … We don’t have anything as it is now,” he said.

Since the charter school opened, 143 students have enrolled and received about $161,114 in local funding.

Although it “nagged” Dupree his schools didn’t get where “we wanted academically,” he highlighted other accomplishments: hiring SRO officers, establishing a pre-K program “before the state started,” creating “school choice” for elementary schools, securing a $5 million grant for magnet schools and $10 million Race to the Top grant that allows every student to have computers and electronic devices.

Another accomplishment was building a performing arts center at W.A. Higgins, the former middle school that now serves seventh and eighth-graders.

“There are a lot of people who feel strong about (Dupree) on either sides, but he’s probably one of the most proactive people I’ve ever seen,” said Gooden, the school board member. “He’s not afraid to try things which is probably his strongest suit.”

One of the most recent achievements was passing an $8.5 school bond issue  in 2017. 

“I think all of those things combined really is what I came to do other than academic side. I was hoping we could move quicker toward those goals of being successful,” said Dupree. “It wasn’t like we weren’t trying. We were trying.”

Regardless of the trying times and unexpected challenges, the district is now at a “crossroads,” said Gooden, and it’s time to search for someone new who will be proactive, has a plan, and is ready for the “unique set of challenges” the Delta brings. 

The school board approved $10,500 to allow the Mississippi School Boards Association to lead the search for the next district leader.

“The district isn’t doing well and we have one school excelling,” Gooden said. “I think the choice of a superintendent, who we decide, is going to be crucial to this district.”

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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.