State-run Achievement School District ready to launch, will take over two Delta districts

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Reporter for America

Adrienne Hudson, founder of grassroots education nonprofit RISE Inc., says there are several reasons Delta districts like Humphreys County and Yazoo City Municipal struggle. “We’re facing some of the highest rates of poverty in the entire country, so we have to be realistic about what comes with poverty,” Hudson said.

Two Delta school districts will be placed under state leadership this summer in Mississippi’s new Achievement School District, set to launch June 1.

Humphreys County and Yazoo City Municipal school districts will be the inaugural two placed in the state-run district, which is tasked with turning around low-performing schools.

At an April 11 Mississippi State Board of Education meeting, five districts were presented as candidates to join the achievement district due to a history of poor academic performance, but the board ultimately decided on Yazoo City and Humphreys because they had the lowest ratings of the five.

The Legislature created the achievement district during the 2016 legislative session “for the purpose of transforming persistently failing public schools and districts throughout the state into quality educational institutions.”

It was originally slated to open in the 2018-19 school year, but the Mississippi Department of Education had difficulty finding someone to lead it as superintendent.

“We’re not going to hire someone on an arbitrary timeline just because we’re trying to check a box,” Jason Dean, chair of the state Board of Education said. “We were not satisfied with the initial round of applicants and so we went back to the drawing table.”

At the meeting, the board announced they’d found the district’s new leader – Jermall Wright. Wright is currently the chief academic and accountability officer in Birmingham City Schools, and has experience in school turnaround work in Denver and Alabama.

Dean said Wright will be based in Jackson and start no later than June 1.

There are three ways a district is eligible to join the ASD:

• Have an F accountability rating for two consecutive years, or twice in a three-year period

• 50 percent or more of a district’s schools are rated F

• 50 percent or more of the students in a school district attend an F-rated school

Humphreys County is a 97 percent black, 1,580 student district which received an F rating in the 2017-18 school year. Yazoo County is a 98 percent black district with 2,422 students enrolled this school year, and also received an F rating. In both districts, their elementary and middle schools were rated F, and their respective high schools were rated D.

Mississippi Today reached out to both districts for comment but calls were not returned.

The local school boards will be dissolved and replaced by the state Board of Education, and Wright will report to the state board. For a district to leave the achievement district, it must earn a C or higher for five consecutive years, according to state law.

Former educator and administrator Adrienne Hudson, now the founder of grassroots education nonprofit RISE Inc., says there are a multitude of reasons Delta districts like these two struggle to measure up with Mississippi’s accountability model.

“We’re facing some of the highest rates of poverty in the entire country, so we have to be realistic about what comes with poverty,” Hudson said.

Census data from 2016 shows 48 percent of children ages 5 to 17 in the Yazoo City Municipal School District live in poverty; in Humphreys County, that figure is 52 percent.

Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows the 2017 median household income in Humphreys County was $26,489. In Yazoo County, where the other school district is located, the median household income was $33,051.

“We have children who have been traumatized by circumstances out of their control pretty much across the Delta. We all know that and we’re all saying that, but what are we doing to fix that? Everything seems to be punitive. Instead of saying how can we go into school districts and provide additional resources, we say those children aren’t performing.”

To fix this, the state should look at providing more funding for districts like this to hire more counselors, social workers and nurses, Hudson said. Department of Education officials said the districts will not receive additional funds for being an achievement district school.

Hudson pointed out that rural Delta districts struggle with enrollment and often have fewer schools than larger metropolitan areas, which means it’s easier to fall into that second achievement district qualification of having half or more of schools rated F.

Hudson, who is based in Clarksdale but works with districts throughout the Delta, stressed that schools need support from the state and officials should work to include them in improving things. State leadership removing local control and taking over a district can breed resentment within communities if they feel they are being told what to do instead of taught how to change things, she said.

“We have a lot of people who don’t believe that people from the Delta are smart enough to help themselves,” Hudson said. “I know in my heart there is work to be done in my community, but the answer can’t be ‘somebody save us.'”

State officials said they intend to host community meetings in the future but did not specify a date.

“We want to work within the communities and ensure that this isn’t seen as a over the top, heavy handed approach to solve their education challenges,” Dean said. “But let’s be realistic. This isn’t the first day that they heard that there are significant challenges in the school district.”

Outside of the Achievement School District model, the state can also take over a school district using the district of transformation model. Since 1996, school districts have been taken over using this model 20 times.

“I see the district of transformation as an emergency situation,” said Dean, the state board chair. “You don’t have to wait for three years to see that you’re an F.”

When the the Commission on School Accreditation and Mississippi’s state Board of Education both decide an extreme emergency exists, they can request that the governor declare a state of emergency for the district to be taken over by the state and become a District of Transformation. Like the achievement district model, the local school board is removed and the superintendent is replaced with a conservator, who remains in place until the district earns a C rating for five years.

The governor can declare a state of emergency for any of these three reasons:

• The State Board of Education and Commission on School Accreditation each determine an extreme emergency exists in a school district that threatens the safety, security and educational interests of students or is related to serious accreditation violations

• A school district is a failing district for two consecutive years

• More than half of a district’s schools are designated as “at risk” or a school remains at-risk after three years of implementing an improvement plan

The Leflore County School District, Tunica County School District, and Noxubee County School District are each currently districts of transformation.