Mississippi

What happens when two separate and unequal school districts merge?

Forced to consolidate, two school districts in rural Mississippi reimagine desegregation

Students warm up in choir, one of the many extracurricular classes offered at Starkville High

This story is the second in an ongoing series about the last days of desegregation.

STARKVILLE, Miss. — When the news first broke that two neighboring school districts in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi had to consolidate, parents, teachers, and students on both sides of the district lines buzzed with anxiety.

“Those kids are so bad. They’re going to be mean to my kid. We’re going to have rivalries — county kids against city kids and East and West kids from the county schools against one another,” said David Baggett, Assistant Superintendent for the new district, reciting common fears.

At the start of the 2015 school year, about 800 new students — the majority African-American—from schools in Oktibbeha County prepared for their first year in the newly consolidated Starkville Oktibbeha County Public School District.

The new students came to Starkville, a diverse district with a mix of 30 percent white and 65 percent black students, from East and West Oktibbeha County Schools, which were almost entirely black. Their schools were crumbling and had twice been taken over by the Mississippi State Board of Education for failing to provide students with an adequate education.

Starkville, in contrast, was regarded as a successful school system, offering opportunities such as Advanced Placement classes and robotics competitions through a career and technology center. Many students in the district were children of professors and administrators from nearby Mississippi State University. The Starkville Foundation for Public Education, funded by donations from local residents, gave frequent grants to Starkville teachers to purchase new equipment and materials for their classrooms.

Related: Is consolidation the answer for Mississippi’s struggling schools?

In July 2013, the Mississippi legislature mandated the consolidation of Starkville and Oktibbeha County school districts in an effort to save money and ensure a better education for students in the low-performing Oktibbeha County schools. When school districts merge the main challenges usually involve finding ways to improve test scores and cut costs without sacrificing educational opportunities, but the new Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District faced an even bigger challenge: desegregation.

For over 40 years both school districts have operated under dormant desegregation orders. Across the country, there are 175 school districts, just like the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, with open desegregation cases in which the Department of Justice is a party. Today, many of these cases have become relics of the 1960s and ’70s, with courts and the Department of Justice often doing little to nothing to check if districts have done their duty to end segregation.

When asked how many districts were making progress towards fulfilling their court orders, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eve Hill responded, “I hope that they are all moving forward. We’re monitoring as actively as we can.”

In Starkville, Mississippi, however, merging the two school districts has provided a rare opportunity to reimagine desegregation for the 21st century. Consolidation prompted district leaders to create a desegregation plan that went farther than those the courts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) required back in the ’60s and ’70s. District administrators hope that a successful consolidation will “be the spark for providing greater educational opportunities than ever before and achieving a new and greater shared benchmark of excellence,” according to a consolidation announcement posted on the school district website. The district is attempting to correct years of educational inequity and find ways to close those gaps and ensure all students, regardless of race, receive a high quality education.

Related: Schools in the poorest state become even poorer

“This is not just about desegregation. It’s about improving education for all kids,” said school district Superintendent Lewis Holloway. “And the Department of Justice bought into that.”

John Jones asks a question to his students in AP Human Geography on August 18, 2016. Jones came to Starkville High in 2015 from East Oktibbeha County High School.

Throughout Mississippi, where there are still 43 open desegregation orders, the process of integrating schools traditionally pitted the courts and the DOJ against school districts. Administrators struggled to fulfill the DOJ’s mandates while preventing white students from fleeing, according to John Hooks, who has represented over 20 Mississippi school districts in their desegregation cases. Hooks said the effects of failed desegregation policy are most evident in the Mississippi Delta, where nearly all white students have left the public school system.

“It’s been a frustrating experience, working with the Department of Justice,” said Hooks. “What we find time again is that if districts aren’t careful they end up with no racial diversity. And part of that is a result of some of the desegregation orders themselves.”

Hooks argues that a more nuanced approach — one that attempts to expand educational opportunities for all students, not just change who they sit next to — is needed to make desegregation work.

In a 1967 case rejecting a freedom of choice plan, under which historically black schools remained black while white schools saw minor integration, the Supreme Court paved the way for the DOJ to pursue integration by eliminating any trace of racial segregation in a school’s student body, faculty and staff, extracurricular activities, and transportation.

“We don’t require school districts to change the population or address the lack of low income housing in the area,” said Hill, the assistant deputy attorney general. “We ask them to be integrated in the schools.”

Related: When it comes to student achievement, facilities matter

But the DOJ could hold Starkville accountable for student achievement gaps — on test scores, for example, or graduation rates — if it wanted to. In a 1992 decision, the Supreme Court allowed a more expansive reading of the law, a decision that has been interpreted as requiring districts to eliminate racial disparities in discipline and to seek equity in academic achievement.

And yet, the Justice Department has not asked the district to report on the performance of the minority students desegregation is supposed to help. So even as Starkville attempts to go above and beyond what’s required by U.S. law — what makes it a unique and hopeful case — it’s unclear anyone in government will be watching to make sure it achieves its goal.

One county, two districts worlds apart

Oktibbeha County is a rural district in east-central Mississippi. Like many counties throughout the American South, deep divides exist between black and white residents.

The median household income in Oktibbeha County for black residents is $21,795 annually while the median income for white households is almost double, at $41,501, according to American Community Survey 2014 estimates. Approximately half of the almost 50,000 people who live in Oktibbeha County live within Starkville’s city limits. Mississippi State University and the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School districts are two of the town’s largest employers.

Lee Brand, a local pastor and member of the school board, says the town limits are a stark line. “There are pockets of poverty in the county that rival the Delta while Starkville is, by comparison, a wealthy town,” he said.

This economic divide was mirrored in the school system.

Before consolidation, Oktibbeha County School district enrolled just 856 students, 96 percent of whom received free and reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. In Starkville, 70 percent of students benefited from the program.

With high levels of poverty, and limited resources, the tiny rural district struggled year after year to boost test scores and offer the Oktibbeha County students a comparable education to the one received by students in Starkville. At the high school level, 46 percent of students in Oktibbeha schools passed the English subject test in 2014 compared to 72 percent of students in Starkville. In math and science, Starkville students also out performed Oktibbeha students.

“Oktibbeha County really didn’t have the resources to meet state standards,” said Walter Conley, the former superintendent of Oktibbeha County School District.

Some of Oktibbeha’s problems date back to the district’s first attempt to desegregate. After the Department of Justice mandated school integration in 1969, Starkville School District’s borders were reconfigured to include areas outside of the city limits.

“That left the county schools in a lurch because the city received communities where the houses were valued higher,” said Rex Buffington who served on the 2013 consolidation commission. “So the tax base went to the city school district, and it made obstacles for the county even greater as they had even less to work with.”

The 1969 desegregation order had another effect. That same year, Starkville Academy, a private school called a segregation academy by some in the area, took in its first students, most of them white. White flight only compounded the County’s losses as parents with financial means disinvested their time and money in the public schools.

In the last few years, Oktibbeha’s lack of resources has meant, for instance, that students had to travel to Starkville schools in order to take Advanced Placement classes or play on some sports teams.

Related: The children of children who went to desegregated schools reap benefits too, study finds

A Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District bus brings students home at the end of the school day. Students at the farthest edge of the district travel for up 40 minutes each way to get to school.

Lynnzie Dean, now a senior, first started travelling to Starkville High from West Oktibbeha High School in the ninth grade. Every week she came to Starkville to take extracurricular classes such as choir, zoology, and Spanish. Even so, Dean was initially intimidated by her new school when she enrolled last year.

“It was overwhelming at first. The school is bigger, the classes are longer, and the curriculum was harder,” said Dean. “Spanish class, for me, was the hardest. I struggled at first just to keep up.”

Administrators say promoting the academic success of students like Dean, who is African-American, is one their primary goals.

The hope is that by providing students access to resources they did not previously have, including after school programs and individualized lesson plans for students in need of remediation, the district can help every student reach his or her full potential. But the district does not have clear benchmarks for measuring its success.

“We don’t break students down into subgroups,” said Assistant Superintendent Baggett. “We look at the full student and address all their needs based on where they are educationally.”

Hope and faith

The current desegregation order, issued in March 2016, mandated a Biracial Advisory Committee to oversee implementation of the desegregation plan. The advisory committee is made up of black and white parents from each of the seven schools in the district. Its job is “breaking down educational barriers,” according to Jamila Taylor, a member of the committee and parent of two children, ages 15 and 13, who attend school in the district. “We want to make sure that all our students can compete on a national level.”

Each year, the district must report the breakdown of students in each class “specifically indicating any groupings or assignments by ability, achievement, or other basis such as advanced placement or honors classes, special education,” according to the court order.

These detailed reports are the primary means by which the federal court and the DOJ provide oversight. With the annual data, the Department of Justice can track disparities in black and white students’ enrollment in honors or special education classes. Student enrollment within the classroom should mirror the racial make up of the overall district.

The new school district enrolls 5,152 students, according to 2015-16 figures. Sixty-eight percent of the student body is black and 27 percent is white. The remaining 5 percent are predominantly Asian and Latino.

“We routinely look at the breakdown of Advanced Placement and gifted and talented,” said Hill, the deputy assistant at the DOJ. “We don’t want to see segregation carried out through those mechanisms either. Even if a district has schools that are racially balanced in terms of student assignment, if one school had segregated classrooms that school district would not be considered unitary.”

The trophies and medals from the former Oktibbeha County high schools are now on display in Starkville High.

In prior school years, the district was commended by the state for the number of minority students in Advanced Placement and honors classes, according to Superintendent Baggett, so the administration is not worried about meeting the DOJ’s enrollment standards. Still, district leaders don’t know what the consequences would be should the DOJ disapprove of their enrollment numbers.

And the reports the district files to the federal court and DOJ don’t include information on achievement. The district is awaiting the results of state achievement tests from the 2015-16 school year, the first full year of consolidation. The tests measure student proficiency in reading and math as well as subject areas like history and biology for high school students. Test scores aside, the district is already showing signs of progress. Last year, the newly consolidated district achieved an 81 percent graduation rate, up from 75 percent for Starkville High School in the year before consolidation.

Taylor is confident the district will continue to improve and make sure all students are performing well because of the districts focus on testing. Every fall, each student is tested to assess any gaps in skills and knowledge. The test results are used to make individualized plans for bringing students up to speed. Each student is then tested again in the spring to see how much progress they’ve made. For Taylor, the bigger concern is what happens when students are at home.

“The DOJ needs to also look at what happens outside of the schools,” said Taylor. “Improving education is not something that just a district can do. The Department of Justice, and the district, needs to look at the community and parent and family engagement.”

John Jones, now a teacher at Starkville High, believes the lack of community support in the former Oktibbeha school system had an impact on his student’s achievement. The school district had a 27 percent dropout rate in 2014.

In the past year, several of his former students from East Oktibbeha who now attend Starkville High have stopped by his classroom to ask for college references. Mr. Jones remarked that many of his former students seem more excited to be in school, and are starting to think about their options post graduation.

“That change has been exciting to see,” he said. “In East Oktibbeha students lost a lot of their motivation leading up to consolidation. They knew the schools were closing, but now they have more to look forward to.”

The school district, in partnership with Mississippi State University, has plans for a new school for sixth and seventh graders. The district hopes the school can reengage middle school students who might be falling behind academically or drifting out of school altogether. Once completed, the new school will also help to alleviate some of the spatial challenges in the district and provide college exposure for students who have never considered higher education.

“There is a major research institution here,” said Brand, of the school board. “But there are kids in the county who have never been on campus.”

Another chance to get it right

Students returned to Starkville High School in Starkville, Mississippi on August 4, 2016.

The Mississippi State legislature actually considered a merger in the ’90s, but both districts strongly opposed the proposal.

“There had always been this underlying concern in the community, especially among the parents in the city school district, that there would be such a fearful reaction to consolidation that there would be white flight where you end up with public schools that are all black and private schools that are all white,” said Buffington, who served on the consolidation committee.

Related: How one Mississippi district made integration work

When the legislature mandated the consolidation in 2013, to begin in the 2015-16 school year, the same fears resurfaced. Some parents worried the county students would drag down the Starkville District, and that parents with financial means would pull their children out of public schools as a result. Others feared violence between students.

In the year leading up to consolidation, the commission held town hall meetings in person and on Twitter to build community support for the new plan. On both sides of the district lines, parents voiced their concerns.

“If you believe your kid might suffer mildly, but it would clearly be for the greater good, what do you do as a parent?” asked Jay Perry, who is also a member of the Biracial Advisory Committee.

One year later, parents, administrators, students, and teachers like Jones can recount numerous success stories. But getting to this point has not been easy.

At the start of the 2016 school year, the district had to close East Elementary School in Oktibbeha County because it was 90 percent black and did not reflect the racial makeup of the district.

Closing the school meant the district had to reshuffle students into existing elementary schools. The influx of students put several schools at or over their operating capacity. Over the summer, the administration worked round the clock to create more classrooms and add mobile buildings.

Yet none of the fears about student conflicts have come to pass. In fact, the merger has resulted in some families pulling their children out of the private school to send them to Starkville High, according to Superintendent Holloway.

“We knew we were going to receive the kids in the county, but we couldn’t anticipate the private school kids to come back,” said Holloway.

For locals, it’s small signs like these that are enough to suggest maybe this time around, desegregation will work, and might even provide a model for other districts to follow.

“While we don’t have the market cornered on figuring out racial relationships, we are making positive strides,” said Perry, “and the vehicle through which we are accomplishing this is public education.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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