West Tallahatchie students stay home 12 days after severe storms leave 370 kids without a school

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Room damage call be seen at R.H. Bearden Elementary in Sumner, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2020. The elementary school was severely damaged causing the school to be closed for about two weeks.

SUMNER —  Raging winds all but tore off the roof of R.H. Bearden Elementary School about two weeks ago. The storms – at least seven tornadoes in all – ripped through 25 Mississippi counties on Jan. 11, leaving miles of damaged structures in its wake. 

“When I saw (the school), I was in tears … I was so devastated,” said Devora Berdin, principal of R.H. Bearden.  

Students at West Tallahatchie School District (which includes R.H. Bearden) went back to school on Wednesday. They couldn’t come back to school after the storm hit and had been out for 12 days while administrators worked toward a solution. 

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Henryetta Jakes-Griffin, a R.H. Bearden Elementary School Kindergarten teacher, gets ready for the first day of classes at at North Delta Alternative School, in Sumner, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Berdin, who lives in Rome, couldn’t get out of her house because of damage sustained by the storm and was without power and water for five days. 

Once she could, she and other school administrators started having meetings on the side of the road where the elementary school is because, “We did not have permission to go on the campus.”

As of Tuesday, there were still live wires down at the elementary campus, officials warned Mississippi Today reporters who visited the site. 

Now that West Tallahatchie lost one-third of its campus (the district consists of a high school, an elementary school and an alternative school), administrators had to do significant reconfiguring to figure out where to put the 370 kids who were now without a school. These students come from Glendora, Tutweiler and Webb. Census data shows that Sumner, which is 21 miles south of Clarksdale, is made up of about 316 people. 

The fifth- and sixth-graders will go to the high school campus, said Devona Jones-Chambers, principal of West Tallahatchie High School.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Alternative School principal Robert Jakes brings learning materials inside the alternative school in Sumner, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2020. R.H. Bearden Elementary School classes will be held at the alternative school due to the recent storms that damaged the schools in the area.

Berdin said those students will be in a separate building from the high schoolers and won’t cross paths with them. Kindergarten through fourth-graders will now be at the alternative school; the students who were at the alternative school have been moved to an annex building at the high school. Some of the elementary classes will have to be condensed, but none of them will have more than 25 students and three adults, Berdin said. 

“It’s a change. Change is always hard, but we have been staying motivated” Berdin said. “Our goal is when our students walk in, I want them to see pieces of Bearden here in this building. I want them to walk into those rooms and feel like they’re walking into their original classroom at Bearden.”

Administrators haven’t decided yet when the students will make up the lost days, but they’re looking at options like Presidents’ Day and spring break, Jones-Chambers said. 

While there’s never a convenient time for a school to be shuttered by a natural disaster, the closeness of this incident to state testing creates an even more pressing sense of urgency to prepare students. Last year the school district received an F on the state’s accountability score, with Bearden earning a D. 

“This is second semester and there’s a lot of skills we have to make sure we still teach,” Berdin said. “We are telling ourselves, ‘We can do this. We will do this.’ People have low expectations because of the crisis we’re in right now. I believe as long as the staff stays motivated and positive then we will be able to do well.” 

Administrators have been told that the building is not beyond repair and that it can be expected to get back into the school by August. 

“We have 47 days until testing. I don’t want to leave this building until after testing is over so we won’t have to miss any more days for that. But I am hopeful that we are going to get back into the building eventually, hopefully for next school year,” Berdin said. 

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

A fallen magnolia trees in front of R.H. Bearden Elementary in Sumner, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2020.