Credit: Photo by Melanie Thortis

CLEVELAND — When it became clear that 384 students unenrolled from the public schools here and weren’t coming back, the already underfunded district was left with a prospective $1.7 million budget shortfall. 

Superintendent Otha Belcher Credit: Cleveland School District

Superintendent Otha Belcher said in a January community meeting that to cover the shortfall, he first considered not filling vacancies in the central office. Then he did the same for the maintenance department, the transportation department and teacher vacancies at the individual schools. 

“We asked everybody to give up something,” Belcher said. 

It still wasn’t enough. 

Now, the district’s pre-kindergarten program is likely to be cut from seven classes at four different schools to four classes at two different schools. At maximum capacity, it will be able to serve 80 children, with 20 4-year-olds per class.

In an urban setting where early learning options are plentiful, losing three pre-kindergarten classes might not be significant. But in rural areas where educational outcomes already suffer and a strong public school system can make or break a town’s viability, parents feel the loss of even three pre-K classes is immense. 

“(People) will never consider coming to a town that doesn’t have a strong foundational elementary school program. If we cannot offer a pre-K program to them that is valid and not overcrowded, we’re not going to get people to move here. We’re going to lose even more students,” said Sayward Fortner, a parent at the Cleveland School District, during a Jan. 26 community meeting. 

These pre-kindergarten programs are lauded in the community not just because they benefit kids, but because they create more equity within the school system, help combat white flight, and contribute to the overall economic well being of the small Delta town. 

As word spread about cuts to the pre-K programs, so did outrage among parents. 

While 384 children — or more than 10% of total enrollment — is a staggering amount to lose from a district Cleveland’s size, it’s not an issue unique to this Delta district alone. Public schools across Mississippi are experiencing similar trends. 

Some parents faced with decisions about where to send their kids to school during the pandemic opted for homeschool, private schools, or other options. Overall, the state’s public school system lost 23,000 students this year. 

This is problematic to the public school system for many reasons, the most immediate being the budget hole it creates. Public schools are funded in large part based on average daily attendance, meaning the more students that are enrolled in a school district, the more funding that district receives. This school year, districts on average receive $10,655 per student, though that number varies by district. 

A bill is working its way through the Legislature that could temporarily fix the budget shortfall by funding schools based on 2019-20 enrollment numbers. Even if that bill does pass, there are no promises that it would renew to the 2021-22 school year. The same budget shortfall conundrum could present itself again next year, Belcher has said. 

He told parents that the district won’t know the final amount they’ll be funded from the state until April or May; they need to plan as if they’ll have $1.7 million fewer to work with next year.

“It’s just a tough deal for everybody in the state. So do we know what the budget is going to be exactly? No we do not. Do we need to prepare? Yes we do. Because it is not moral for you to go to (a teacher) in the month of May and tell them that they do not have a job (next year),” Belcher said. 

The issue is further complicated because some of the pre-kindergarten programs are part of an Early Learning Collaborative — a statewide initiative that helps school districts pre-K programs forge partnerships with private preschools and Head Start programs. Head Start provides low-income, pre-kindergarten age children with kindergarten readiness support.  These collaboratives are funded out of a separate pot of money and are also waiting to see how much funding the Legislature gives them. 

By the time final funding amounts are settled, it will be too late, community members say. Parents will have already had to make decisions about where to send their children for pre-kindergarten. 

“I’m telling you, you are going to have families that leave the school system. They’re not coming back, and then you’re losing out on those students from kindergarten all the way through (high school),” Fortner said. 

Part of the urgency to maintain as many pre-K programs as possible is to maintain a well integrated school system. 

Like most public schools in the south, white families with children enrolled in public schools fled to private “segregation academies” after Brown v. Board of Education made desegregation law.

Cleveland School District is one of the last in the Delta to maintain a somewhat integrated public school body. The white population has steadily fallen since 2017 when a federal desegregation order mandated that the majority Black high school merge with the other high school that was about 60% Black and 40% white at the time. 

Research has repeatedly shown that when white families flee public schools, the school system suffers; they lose out on funding and become less relevant to majority white legislative bodies

Parents say that the advantage of having numerous thriving pre-K classes in the Cleveland School District is that families enroll their children in the public school system early on and usually keep them there until high school graduation. If they enroll their child in the private school’s pre-K because there’s not enough room at the public school, they’re likely to stay there.

“We have Bayou Academy (a private academy in Cleveland) out there marketing their pre-K program to get students in. And once they’re in those programs, those parents do not want to bring their children out,” Fortner said at a February school district meeting. 

There are currently 98 children enrolled in Cleveland School District’s pre-K program spread across four schools: Bell Elementary, Hayes Cooper, Nailor Elementary, and Parks Elementary. The year before the pandemic, there were 115 children enrolled in the district’s pre-K classes. 

Under the new configuration there would be a total of four classes at two schools that could accommodate at most 80 children with 20 per classroom. 

Though this is technically allowed under state guidelines, parents take issue with the idea of keeping 20 4-year-olds in one classroom. 

“(That) is not ideal for anybody,” Fortner said. 

Aside from that, parents who have been vocal about this say eliminating pre-K programs from two of the schools presents equity issues; the problem is not as much about losing white families as it is about ensuring a supportive school district for all who are enrolled.  

Mark Gooden, Columbia professor in education leadership, also asserted that an equitable school system is one that ensures the most vulnerable students have access to the best resources possible. 

“The most vulnerable populations more often than not, are going to be most likely poor children of color who are of lower socioeconomic status. And so you can say the quality of your school district is really correlated with the success of those kids. So therefore, if you are successful for those kids who normally wouldn’t get full access to the curriculum, then you are moving toward equity,” he said.

While the enrollment at Parks, Bell, and Hayes Cooper averages at 46% Black, Nailor is 94% Black. The proposed plan would eliminate the pre-K classes at Nailor and Parks; children zoned for these schools wouldn’t have the same early learning opportunities at their schools as the other schools would have.

Cutting out these pre-kindergarten classrooms at this school creates three groups of students.

Fortner, the parent, says: “You have one group who can afford private school or relocation…you lose them and you lose money that they would be bringing into our system. You have (another group of) students who can’t qualify for Head Start, and are depending on this. You’re telling them they’re just out of luck. Or you have students who can qualify for Head Start and you’re telling them, you can go there, you’re not worth a (pre-K) program.”

Belcher has responded that pre-K programs at those two schools were chosen to be cut because the enrollment was already low there. He also said that Head Start programs involved in the Early Learning Collaborative incorporate curriculums that the pre-K classes use.

Parents remain unsatisfied with that answer. 

“There’s a larger picture at play here and that is the strength of our public school system,” said Rori Eddie Herbison, parent of a middle schooler and member or president of several parent committees. 

To her, the thought of any child not getting to experience what her child experienced in Cleveland’s pre-K program is devastating.  

“I have said from day one, that (my child’s pre-K) teacher was the one that sewed the wings on her so lovingly and with so much nurture on her that she was ready to fly. And the thought that someone in this community will not be afforded that experience is heartbreaking. And it’s beyond the emotion of the heartbreak. It’s destructive to the growth of the public school system,”

And whatever destructs the school system destructs the community in general. That’s why some feel that as Cleveland’s population has fallen every year since the 2017 desegregation order, as the Delta continues to not be prioritized by the state for economic incentive plans, and as educational outcomes in the region continue to lag, the school district cannot afford to lose three pre-kindergarten classes. 

“All of it works hand in hand. I think, here in Mississippi, particularly in the Delta when you look at the plainly stated data-driven statistics of where we are … with poverty lines, median incomes, teenage pregnancies, high school completion that leads to college attendance — those facts directly correlate with the public school system. So the better our public school system can be, the better some of those statistics can be,” Eddie Herbison said. 

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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.