New superintendent of state-run Achievement School District urges Yazoo City to get involved in turning around schools

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Sarah Kleiner / The Center for Public Integrity

Some parents in Yazoo City, downtown shown here, welcome the state takeover of the city school district saying, “something had to happen.”

YAZOO CITY — The crowd who filled the L.T. Miller Community Center this week night may have been unsure about what the future holds for their school district, but all seemed to agree upon one thing: there is a dire need for change.

Last month, the Mississippi State Board of Education announced that Humphreys County and Yazoo City Municipal school districts would be the first two to join the state’s new Achievement School District. Set to launch June 1, the new district is tasked with turning around the state’s persistently failing public schools.

“It’s a good thing, something had to happen,” said Kim Jones, who has a grandchild in the Yazoo City school system and is an active member of the local P-16 community engagement council. “Because if not it was going to continue to go on and on and our kids are going to fail.”

The Yazoo City district is 98 percent black with 2,422 students enrolled this school year. The district received an F rating in October, as did both elementary schools and the middle school. The high school received a D.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Dr. Jermall Wright talks to members of the Yazoo City community about the new Achievement School District on May 15, 2019.

Jones was one of the dozens of parents, educators and community members who came to the meeting for their first chance to meet the man tasked with turning around their schools. New Achievement School District superintendent Jermall Wright, who visited Humphreys County last week, came to Yazoo City on Wednesday to introduce himself and his plans for the school district.

Wright spoke for about an hour and warned the room that they may not like the changes to come, adding that Yazoo’s placement in the achievement district is an opportunity to get things right.

“For many of our students this is the only chance, the only hope, the only avenue that they can have to have choices in life,” Wright said. “Because that is so important, we have to take our roles and responsibilities seriously.”

Wright told the crowd that Yazoo City and Humphreys County districts will not merge or consolidate. The schools will operate as two separate campuses within the achievement district with one central office, but their names, finances and sports teams will be kept separate.

He hinted that while some people may lose their jobs, he’s learned from previous work experience that “you can’t just keep firing people, you have to take the time to develop them.” Yazoo’s current superintendent Frederick Hill attended the meeting and said he was still employed with the district.

Yazoo City

Yazoo City Mayor Diane Delaware

The Legislature created the Achievement School District during the 2016 legislative session and under the law, local school boards are abolished and the state Board of Education takes their place. For some this raises concerns about a loss of local control, but Yazoo City Mayor Diane Delaware questioned whether residents have taken advantage of local control before the takeover.

“Now, we’ve had school boards for a very long time,” Delaware said. “And I’m not sure anyone in here actually knows what’s going on in our schools, so what local control are you giving up? We have not grasped and taken the control that we have had in our schools.”

Moving forward, the community needs to be involved in their children’s education, she said.

Improvement is going to take time and the district may not see a change in student outcomes next year because this is not easy work, Wright said. Despite this, he urged the audience to stay involved through future community meetings and engagement groups.

“The proof of if it is really about the children or if it’s really about you will be how you respond to this process,” Wright said. “If it’s really about the children, if it’s really about making things better for the students and families that we serve, this is your opportunity to make it happen.”