Despite Improvements, Mississippi Schools Continue to Struggle

Although a recent Harvard University study ranks Mississippi at number 13 when it comes to the academic improvement of its students, real academic proficiency remains an elusive goal, Yahoo News reports. People born in Mississippi remain the least likely to have a high school diploma of native-born Americans from any other state even as current governor Phil Bryant reiterates that the strength of the state’s education system will determine its future economic success.

The GOP-controlled state Legislature has taken education improvement seriously in the past several years, adopting many reform measures such as school choice and greater teacher accountability. The efforts appear to be paying off. Compared to the 1980s, 2010 Census figures show a 25.6 percentage point improvement in the number of residents over 25 with a high school diploma. Only 54.8% of adults were high school graduates in the state in 1980.

Yet such steep improvements mask deeper problems. The same Harvard study that praised the state for its rapid pace of progress also showed that although more students in Mississippi schools have basic competence in subject areas like math and reading, the rates of “true proficiency” remain low, compared to other parts of the country.

Improvements are toughest in areas such as Clarksdale, where per capita income is about 78 percent of the national average and the unemployment rate was 13 percent in March. Half of all county children live in poverty, and 90 percent of Clarksdale’s 3,200 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Most white children attend private schools, while 97 percent of students in the public system are black. Of children born in Coahoma County, 18.8 percent have a low birth weight. That critical predictor of future problems is more than twice the national rate of 8.1 percent.

Public schools in districts like Clarksdale are likely to be more affected by the upcoming change that would have students in K-3 held back if they’re not reading at grade level. Similar laws were adopted in 14 other states. Although teachers in Clarksdale elementary schools – two of which were rated B last year with the remaining four graded F – are working to improve the literacy of their students, a lack of support at home is making that tougher.

Some help could come in the next few years as state lawmakers make provisions for a pre-K program that could reach a growing number of Mississippi kids. The extra money provided by the state will come in handy in Clarksdale where three pre-school programs are already running – serving 60 kids in total – funded by federal grants.

Clarksdale could also be an early target for a charter school under a new law easing creation of the alternative public schools. The Knowledge is Power Program, a national group, operates a charter school in nearby Helena-West Helena, Ark. The group has expressed interest in Clarksdale and many Mississippi leaders have said the school is a model. Some Clarksdale residents, including Luckett and his mayoral rival, Democratic state Rep. Chuck Espy, also support charter schools.