Mississippi

A charter school faces the ugly history of school choice in the Deep South

In rural parts of the South, school choice has long been linked to private segregation academies opened for white families fleeing desegregation and busing. Mississippi’s first rural charter school challenges that legacy, but threatens the struggling traditional public schools most black children still attend

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Clarksdale, MS

Executive Director Amanda Johnson greets students as they arrive for school.

CLARKSDALE, Miss. — It was a rainy February morning, but Clarksdale Collegiate Principal Amanda Johnson was fired up. “You know how Ms. Johnson feels about Friday,” she told the students as she paced around the cafeteria in an “I am black history” shirt. “If you didn’t get it all done … Friday’s the day you turn it around.”

The former church youth-group multipurpose room had become a shrine to academic achievement, the stained-glass window overshadowed by bold purple banners listing the students’ future college graduation years, the school’s values and the slogan “#RUReady.” The students were just in kindergarten, first and second grade, but Johnson was projecting far into the future.

“Raise your hand if you know your stretch goal,” Johnson said — referring to students’ personal better-than-best target score on their upcoming standardized tests. “I need you to know what you’re aiming at.”

Ricky Taylor, a skinny first grader with a gap between his front teeth, raised his hand way up until it practically lifted him off the bench. “My stretch goal in math is 191,” he said. Johnson hustled over and gave Ricky a dollar.

The 140 voices shrilled the morning chant, spelling out the school’s core rules: Work hard, be nice, stay safe, demonstrate urgency. “Because I matter. Because you matter. I am a scholar. And a future college graduate!”

Clarksdale, MS

Students assemble for morning motivations, updates and announcements.

Then they walked silently to their homerooms past a volunteer who was busy counting the crushed, damp bills students had brought from home for their college accounts.

Johnson opened the doors of Mississippi’s first rural charter school in this temporary space a year ago. Pulling students from Coahoma County and its county seat of Clarksdale, the school serves an area of the Mississippi Delta known for its rich blues heritage, low incomes and abysmal educational outcomes. For Johnson, the school was a bid to cultivate the greatness she saw in these local kids, including her own daughters. They were so bright, so eager, and yet if the current statistics held, 25 percent would not graduate from high school.

But Clarksdale Collegiate opened in the face of protest. The Clarksdale school board and Advocates for Public Education, a group of local parents and educators formed to oppose the charter, submitted an amicus brief in support of the Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit aiming to overturn the state’s entire charter law.

In a county with fewer than 27,000 residents, more than 1,300 people signed a petition opposing the school. They wanted a better education for all students, not just a few, Coahoma County lawmaker Johnny Newson told the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board. His comments at the 2017 meeting were ineffective: The board had already approved the charter’s application before they opened up public comment, according to MCSA’s minutes.

Nationally, controversy over opening a charter school is nothing new. But in Clarksdale, it had a particularly painful resonance. In 1970, when the courts ordered schools to desegregate and controversies over busing erupted across the country, white parents in Coahoma County fled the public system for private segregation academies, calling it “school choice.”

White abandonment of the public system impoverished the public schools that served Clarksdale’s African American majority. Fifty years later, the term “school choice” still evokes injustice to the elderly African American educators and NAACP civil rights activists who led the drive to stop Clarksdale Collegiate. They saw the charter school as a new way to create a free but essentially private education for the privileged.

Elsewhere in the Deep South, charters have lived up, or rather down, to that fear. In Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, dozens of taxpayer-funded public charters enroll far more white students than any of the traditional public schools in their areas. They don’t charge tuition, but they’ve become exclusive enclaves through other means — for example, by not providing a free or subsidized lunch or bus transportation. Southwest Georgia S.T.E.M. Charter School opened in 2016 on the former campus of the shuttered Randolph Southern School, a private school that had not enrolled a single black student in 2012, the last year for which enrollment numbers are available. During its first year, the charter school’s student body was 70 percent white; enrollment in the local public schools was 4 percent white.

Related: Are rural charter schools viable in Mississippi?

Despite the chorus of opposition, parents came to Clarksdale Collegiate. Ricky’s foster parents, Sakenna and Keithan Dear, worked in public school systems, but they signed Ricky up anyway. They hoped this school would support the child they were trying to adopt, who had come to them at age 3 from the children’s hospital in Memphis barely speaking, and left kindergarten at a local public school unable to read basic sight words.

Clarksdale, MS

Ricky Taylor came to the new charter school for first grade after struggling in kindergarten.

Ricky had his own hopes for his new school. He wanted his teachers to pay attention to him. He wanted them to build a playground. He wanted to learn how to fly an airplane, only not too far off the ground, because heights were scary.

Like the Dears, most families who came to the charter were black, and they believed Johnson when she said her school would be different. It would, first and last, be better than the schools the area already had. Johnson was opening outside the traditional public system not to create some kind of segregated fiefdom but because that’s where she knew how to run a great school. But she faced an uphill battle against public sentiment strong enough to silence even supporters. She would have to convince them by following through on her promises, helping kids like Ricky learn to read.

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he Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring public schools to desegregate came down in 1955, but some 14 years later, in the fall of 1969, Clarksdale high schools were still separate and unequal. The African American students at Higgins High used white Clarksdale High’s ripped-up textbooks, nastily graffitied with vulgar words, former student Elnora Fondren Palmtag told a college newspaper reporter decades later. In the 1960s there wasn’t a single bathroom in downtown Clarksdale that African Americans were allowed to use — even at the doctor’s office black patients had to hold it, she said. Palmtag was the only black student to attend Clarksdale High in the 1960s, and it took an NAACP-funded taxi cab with decoys to get her there safely.

On Oct. 29, 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Alexander v Holmes County Board of Education, ruling against the “freedom of choice” plans school districts had maintained in Mississippi and elsewhere. The high court ordered all remaining segregated districts across the country to integrate “immediately.” Some big-city districts adopted busing plans, but in the rural South, mostly districts desegregated by closing and consolidating schools. On Feb. 1, 1970, Higgins and Clarksdale high schools were merged in the Clarksdale building, and Higgins became an integrated junior high. The surrounding Coahoma schools also began consolidating in March.

Clarksdale, MS

Lee Academy in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Lee Academy was created in 1970 by white parents fleeing public school integration.

In the lead-up to desegregation, the Clarksdale Press-Register outlined how white parents could leave the districts. About 500 white parents attended the first meeting to discuss opening a private, segregated school; 115 registered on the spot for the future school, which would later be named Lee Academy. A junior high principal resigned from the public school to lead it. A Presbyterian church opened a private school, too, and the Baptist and Methodist schools added grades to accommodate the expected influx of white students, according to contemporaneous press coverage. St. Elizabeth Catholic dropped its expansion plan after the Jackson bishop blasted its board, saying he would go to Rome to stop them if he had to.

When the Clarksdale Public schools reopened Feb. 2, 1970, after a one-day integration reorganization break, 574 of Clarksdale Junior High’s 585 white students did not show up, the newspaper reported. White children vanished entirely from the public schools in nearby counties — Indianola lost almost 1,000 to private schools. Mississippi’s public school enrollment fell by 23,000 students that month, the Associated Press reported. The Press-Register editorial board wrung its hands at how “obdurate desegregation policies” were wrecking the public schools.

Lee Academy moved to a new campus that fall, built on a former cotton field. Courtney Shaffer, who graduated with Lee’s first senior class, wasn’t happy to be pulled from Coahoma High after dreaming about prom and yearbook and cheerleading. But, she said in an interview, you didn’t say no to your parents back then. Plus, Lee had air conditioning, the first school she’d ever attended that did. The education was no different: Lee’s teachers had fled the public schools along with the kids.

Related: Private academies keep students separate and unequal 40 years later

Even as white children left the public system, the white power structure remained. When Clarksdale and Higgins merged, the Clarksdale High principal kept his job; his Higgins counterpart was demoted to assistant. Josephine Rhymes, who is black and who had taught at Higgins, ended up as the consolidated high school’s only French teacher, so some white kids switched to Spanish. High school teacher Donell Harrell said he was almost fired for staging a Black History Month program. About 25 years later, Harrell became the first African American schools superintendent, after applying repeated times.

“We never really integrated,” Rhymes said.

Clarksdale, MS

What used to be the black side of town has few active businesses, in contrast to the cluster of activity on the other side of the train tracks.

The racial divide between the private and public sector is still stark. As of fall 2015, Coahoma County’s three private schools collectively had 7 percent African American enrollment amid public school systems that are more than 90 percent black. The Clarksdale public school system’s lawyer, John Cocke, who graduated from the white high school in 1965, hasn’t convinced his friends of the value of public schools. “Everybody I know goes there, frankly,” Cocke said, when asked about Lee Academy. “All the white people.”

The decades of disinvestment took their toll. It’s no secret now that the condition of the public schools is a roadblock to Clarksdale’s revitalization, residents said. While the city has capitalized on its history as “the birthplace of the blues” with festivals and artsy shops, many downtown sidewalks are littered with shattered glass and poverty remains at 36 percent. People say businesses don’t come to town because they can’t find educated employees. Ben Lewis, a white newcomer who runs a job-training program tied to a café, said he worried that he would have to move away when his children reached school age. (His son now attends Clarksdale Collegiate.)

Schools superintendent Dennis Dupree came to the city 12 years ago, promising innovation. He brought in more than $15 million in federal and state funding for Race to the Top projects, magnet elementary themes and preschool. Voters approved a bond issue for school construction. Dupree introduced literacy and social-emotional learning programs backed by major funders such as The Walton Family Foundation. Dupree’s initiatives were buttressed by community youth programs focused on creativity, employability and college readiness, such as the health sciences mentorship Rhymes now runs.

But the grants ran out, and any lingering positive effects were not visible in test scores. Both the Clarksdale and Coahoma systems were rated F on the state’s 2018 school report cards and are eligible for state takeover. Coahoma county schools have been under interim leadership for more than a year. Dupree, who retired from Clarksdale schools at the end of the 2018-19 school year, declined several requests for an interview.

Amanda Johnson had become an Arkansas charter school principal and made a home in Clarksdale. As she considered where to send her two daughters to school she was at first disheartened, and then inspired. She knew that she could find a way for them in the local district if she had to. But she wanted something better and different for them, and for her neighbors.

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ohnson, a Little Rock native, came to the Arkansas side of the Delta in 2003 with Teach For America. Like many corps members, she had no intention of staying; she planned to go on to law school. But in TFA summer training she met her future husband, who wanted to live in and help improve his home state of Mississippi. And she felt comfortable in the Delta in a way most of her TFA peers did not. Her father knew people in her district; she was close enough to her college in Memphis to drive back for church. Because she is African American, like most of the residents, “no one knew I was Teach For America,” she said. She liked the people and the culture and the history. “There’s a lot of greatness that’s here that I want to be a part of and help grow and support,” she said.

Johnson didn’t like what felt like apathy and inertia among some leaders in the Arkansas public district, or how higher-ups shut down her ideas. After TFA, she joined the KIPP charter network at KIPP Delta in Helena, Arkansas; when the network opened an elementary school, she became its leader. KIPP’s regimented ways aren’t for everyone, but Johnson fell in love with the organization’s college-prep focus and refusal to let poverty dictate outcomes. “They very much believe that kids should have options and all kids can achieve at high levels and that we should help kids do that,” she said.

As Johnson settled in Clarksdale in 2010, the reasons for her to do that work in her adopted hometown multiplied. Living 40 minutes away from the school she led, she felt less connected to the students. While some teachers don’t like running into families at Walmart, she said, “I love it and so wanted that again.” Johnson and her husband began thinking about where their older daughter, Lorelei, would go to kindergarten. Some of the local elementary schools fared well individually on state rankings, and Johnson had the know-how to identify the best teachers. However, she believed that high school failure rates showed that the lower schools weren’t getting it done. And she kept thinking about other kids, who didn’t have the benefit of parents who knew how to advocate for them. Her husband, Sanford Johnson, co-founded Mississippi First in 2008, advocating for better education, including pre-K, for a sexual health curriculum that went beyond abstinence — and charter schools. When Mississippi’s legislature voted in 2016 to let students cross district lines to attend charter schools, she was ready.

Clarksdale, MS

Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School.

Johnson began working her connections, and her low-key magnetism worked wonders. First, she got a fellowship with Building Excellent Schools, a charter leadership incubator. Using the program’s resources, Johnson planned Clarksdale Collegiate down to the smallest detail as she tackled the Mississippi charter school application process.

Clarksdale Collegiate would be “unapologetically college preparatory,” she wrote in her application. She incorporated elements that were familiar in charter-heavy places like Detroit and Memphis but new in Clarksdale, such as decking the hallways with college pennants, illustrations of the school’s core values and graphs of scholars’ academic progress, including the number of words each grade had read as tracked by Accelerated Reader, one of the school’s educational software programs.

Related: Teacher shortages force districts to use online education programs

Johnson planned an extended, highly structured day, more than eight hours, with 75-minute blocks of math — even for kindergarteners — and literacy rotations for two hours at a stretch. The year ran almost three weeks longer than that of the district. Clarksdale Collegiate would be lightning-focused on metrics and testing even though the official state tests on which its renewal would hang didn’t start until the third grade.

Every child would have access to a laptop loaded with software for phonics and numeracy, because Johnson believed children needed a lot of practice in these areas. The computer time also let teachers spend more time working with small groups so they could see, precisely, which elements each student understood. They would have science and social studies, because you can’t read if you don’t know anything about the world, she said. Johnson wrapped all that hard work in co-curricular extras like recess, art, music and physical education, plus regular “field lessons” in which children — some of whom had never been past the Clarksdale Walmart — travelled as far as Memphis and Jackson. The uniforms would be purple and gold, connoting royalty (and avoiding duplicating the colors of city schools).

Clarksdale, MS

Library class is one of Clarksdale Collegiate’s core programs. In the school’s first year, every child had library every day.

Her desk would be in the hall. Johnson had no intention of giving up retying kindergarteners’ shoes and ducking into classrooms just because she also had to manage federal programs and IT. And everything would be done with urgency — a trait she observed at the charter schools she thought were most successful, places like Nashville Classical. There was no time to waste. “Kids don’t do well K through fourth and then start failing in fifth grade,” Johnson said. “What we’re doing now matters.”

Halfway through the year, parents had embraced the intensity. At report card night in February, a kindergartener danced with a stuffed unicorn as her mother frowned at her data binder.

“I think this is great,” kindergarten teacher Latasha Capers said.

“It’s great, but it can be exceptional,” the mom said.

Capers pressed, pointing to the girl’s pre-reading scores: “She’s already scored a 50, and for kindergarten we want a 10 to 12.”

The mom looked unconvinced.

“Everything we’ve done in here she’s mastered,” Capers persisted.

Finally, the mom let her pride in her daughter show. “She’ll get home and she’ll read a book,” she said.

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ohnson’s vision for the school has it serving about 675 children. That size would let Clarksdale Collegiate “impact change outside of our own school,” she said.

Over the next decade, it also would amount to as much as a quarter of Coahoma and Clarksdale’s current public school enrollment, and siphon off a lot of money that might otherwise go to the regular public systems. The charter school pulled roughly $149,000 in local taxes from the Clarksdale district in its first year alone, Cocke said, “and each year it will go up.” During Clarksdale Collegiate’s first year, 29 students who chose to attend the school would have attended Coahoma County public schools, according to school data.

The charter may not be siphoning out white students as the old segregation academies did, but to many critics of the school, pulling resources from the traditional public schools is just as unforgivable. Retired former superintendent Harrell, sitting at McDonald’s where he meets with a group of retirees in the mornings, said he might have supported the charter school had the district been adequately funded. The Mississippi Legislature has fully funded the state’s public education system only twice in more than 20 years. “Ninety-and-something percent of your kids are going to have to go to public school, and [those schools] have to teach everybody,” he said. “I think at some point choice would be appropriate, but don’t shortchange public schools.”

In theory, as a public school, Clarksdale Collegiate’s finances should have been about the same as the local districts. In 2017-18, Coahoma spent $9,279 and Clarksdale $8,424 in state and local per-pupil funds. The charter school received $1.2 million in per-pupil funds for its 145 students for 2017-18, or about $8,200 per child, the school’s financial manager Stacie Landry said.

However, Johnson increased the amount she could spend on her students by raising a lot of private money. Clarksdale Collegiate recorded almost $820,000 in philanthropy for the past school year, Landry said. Funders have included the Louis Calder Foundation, the Charter School Growth Fund and the Walton Family Foundation, the last of which gave significant funds to the Clarksdale and Coahoma districts as well. The school is also getting $900,000 over three years from the federal Department of Education’s charter school grant program. In total, Clarksdale Collegiate had revenues of $2.5 million for 145 students in its first year, Landry said — roughly $17,000 per student.

Related: After years of inaction, Delta teacher shortage reaches ‘crisis’ levels

Clarksdale, MS

After reading together and separately, students in library class get a “brain break” with virtual reality goggles.

Johnson said that much of that money went to one-time startup costs, such as stocking the library. The largest slice went to personnel: She paid teachers about 5 percent more than the Coahoma County system average, and paid her instructional aides almost double the state minimum of $12,500 because, she said, “I can’t even fix my mouth to give someone that salary.” Her own salary was $90,000 during the school’s first year, she said.

Critics like Harrell and Rhymes said the money would be better spent supporting schools in the district. Even A-rated Kirkpatrick Elementary, next door to Clarksdale Collegiate, is hurting for funds. When the district’s magnet school grant came in, it brought Kirkpatrick a health sciences focus and a rush of excitement. Principal SuzAnne Walton said she hired a health instructor and instituted a health lab. Kids learned about medicine using CPR dummies on gurneys and “Little Organ Annie” medical-teaching dolls donated by the extension service. Walton bought workout equipment and installed a climbing wall; she paid health professionals to come in for “Fun Fridays” to lead classes in activities like karate, cheer, yoga, tumbling and dance. It motivated the kids to work harder during the week, she said.

Now, Principal Walton is fighting to keep her school afloat. When the magnet grant ended, she could no longer afford the health teacher and Fun Fridays staff. The school also couldn’t afford a full-time librarian. “There’s just no money available,” Walton said. Last year, the district spent $8,079 per student at Kirkpatrick, according to the state report card, more than $400 below the state average. The school still has the equipment, largely disused except for an occasional class. On a winter visit, a medical doll lolled on a gurney in the back hallway as if waiting in the world’s slowest emergency room.

Kirkpatrick kindergarten teacher Teresa Scheider implemented some of the same rules followed at Clarksdale Collegiate: Be nice, do your very best. She had the same high expectations: The state required that students write their numbers up to 30, she said, but her students furrowed their brows writing their numbers up to 100. Their classmates did math on iPads under clouds that were painted on the wall decades ago. “She’s the best teacher,” kindergartener Raniya Berry said. “We be doing rhyming words and we be doing compound words and we write stories.”

Still, Scheider seemed ground-down. Standardized examinations were something to be endured, not celebrated like across the street. “Education is not what I want it to be anymore,” she said — too much testing, not enough focus on kids’ social development, to their detriment. “You can’t expect anybody who comes from a chaos-filled, drama-filled house and expect them to succeed.” Scheider used to visit the homes of her students; she no longer does. “I’m afraid to now,” she said. In September 2019, the school office said she had retired.

Clarksdale, MS

Sakenna Dear, a Clarksdale Collegiate teacher whose foster child Ricky attends the school, waits for students to arrive.

Clarksdale Collegiate special education teacher Sakenna Dear knows the frustrations. She and her husband Keithan are Coahoma-born and -bred, and they want to stay in the area. “If you were born here, you want to succeed,” she said. “You CAN be something if you come from here. A lot of people think you have to go somewhere else to be someone.” Sakenna Dear said she became a teacher and did the best she could working at a traditional public school, even though the leadership rarely provided meaningful professional development or transparency. Then their foster son Ricky started kindergarten, and she saw how deep the problems went.

When Ricky first came to the Dears he sat alone in his room for hours, barely speaking. When he finally opened his mouth, it was to talk about things like airplanes: “He would just say, propeller, wings, tail,” Sakenna Dear said. In kindergarten, he had a substitute teacher all year, who sent home bad reports about Ricky’s academic progress. Yet at dinner, Ricky described days of coloring and watching movies.

Keithan Dear, the Coahoma system’s Web Developer and Computer Technician,* worried a bit about “the conflict of interest” when they applied for Clarksdale Collegiate. But “being a parent now, it’s whatever’s best for the kid,” he said. “Around here we need to try something different.”

When Sakenna Dear brought Ricky in to register, Johnson invited her to interview for a job. She did, and took it. She wanted something different for herself, too.

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ne way that Clarksdale Collegiate is supposed to be different from the choice schools of the past is in the composition of its student body. But the fact that the charter’s racial demographics mirrored those of the district wasn’t enough to satisfy critics who worried it would repeat past inequities. Even though Clarksdale Collegiate is required by law to have open enrollment, Rhymes, the education activist and retired public school teacher, was convinced the school creamed off the most advantaged students, whose middle-class parents were savvy enough to apply for the school and help their children manage the high expectations there.

Clarksdale, MS

9763 Residents and visitors are reviving the city’s downtown — the long-defunct New Roxy “is being slowly recreated as a vibrant art, music and theater venue,” its website says.

In its first year, Clarksdale Collegiate’s student body was 93 percent black, according to data the school provided. The State of Mississippi reported that 63 percent of the charter’s students were eligible for free lunch, compared to 74 percent of students in the Clarksdale public school district and 77 percent of Coahoma students. All three figures are high enough for the charter school and districts to give free lunch to all their students under the federal government’s “community eligibility” provision.

Coahoma High graduate Adrienne Hudson, who runs the education-improvement group RISE MS, was also initially skeptical of charters. She feared cherry-picking and thought of charter administrators as “this outside force basically coming in trying to rescue this community from itself,” she said. “My answer would always be no, no, no, probably an expletive no.”

State lawmakers tried to build in preventive measures to keep the new schools of choice from exacerbating Mississippi’s stark educational disparities. Lisa Karmacharya, the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board’s executive director, said the purpose of the charter law was to help “the underserved population.” The law requires charters’ enrollment of special education, low-income and English-language learning students to be within 80 percent of that in the district in which the schools operate.

However, even the best law is nothing without enforcement. Penn State University education researcher Erica Frankenberg cautioned that it’s rare for states to make sure charters are following laws requiring them to enroll a representative proportion of students. “I’ve never seen a charter revoked for these reasons,” she said, noting that North Carolina has — but does not enforce — a provision in its law requiring a certain proportion of low-income students. It’s usually up to residents to raise a ruckus, and “that asks a lot of a community, to be vigilant and understand what’s going on,” she said.

The rubric by which Mississippi charters are evaluated puts significant weight on requirements that charters serve special education students and conduct non-discriminatory admissions, but the more general stipulation that a charter serve a representative percentage of “underserved” students ” counts for only 3 of 100 points. And even then, the charter board has the authority to renew a school’s contract even if it has organizational problems. Karmacharya said discussions were underway to revise the evaluation form to better reflect the law. The state board has not yet made any renewal decisions.

Karmacharya is adamant that she and her board are committed to ensuring that the state’s charter schools serve a student population that is similar to that of the district’s non-charter public schools. “Mississippi does not look like Georgia. Our law is not Georgia,” Karmacharya said.

Clarksdale, MS

Students listen to morning motivations, updates and announcements at Clarksdale Collegiate.

Johnson felt just as strongly about reflecting the community. In contrast to the state teaching workforce as a whole, Johnson’s staff, like the students, is mostly African American; the school’s morning chant echoes the words of the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, at one of the local district schools, a white teacher talked about loving her black students, but a breath later wondered if their occasional rowdiness was “a racial thing.”

After multiple meetings and visits with Johnson, Hudson — the Coahoma grad who had said “no, no, expletive no” to the charter — came to believe in Johnson’s commitment to creating a school that reflected and empowered the community. “She is working very hard to be a public charter school,” Hudson said. “Her passion plus her leadership skills are allowing them to build a strong foundation. … I would be remiss in not trying to support that.”

Nonetheless, she was watching. “It’s very important for us to be very cognizant of what’s going on, to be very vigilant,” Hudson said.

At Lee Academy, the school whose history spurred that caution, head of school Rone Walker wants to stop talking about the past. She thinks it is no longer relevant. “We’re an open school to everybody,” she said. National Center for Education Statistics data from 2015, before Lee discontinued its low-enrollment elementary grades, showed that 75 percent of its students were white, 3 percent were Asian, a fraction of a percent were biracial, 9 percent were Hispanic and 6 percent were black.

Walker enumerated a long list of reasons for people to pay almost $6,900 in tuition and fees to send their children to Lee, including small classes, a tight-knit feel, individualized curriculum, a 100 percent college-going rate, Advanced Placement courses, safety and ACT scores in the 22-23 range, far above those of the local public schools. She said she cares about improving the public schools, too. “We should all be working together to make things the best for our kids,” she said. “Our community needs it.”

In that spirit, she had something to offer Clarksdale Collegiate: “I have a really nice, up-to-code, huge building,” Walker said. It had housed the elementary school that Lee Academy had closed when enrollment fell. “If I had known they were looking for a space, I would’ve called them,” she said.

Johnson was surprised by the offer, and not ready to take it. Clarksdale Collegiate is looking at buying the shuttered Myrtle Hall IV elementary campus in its current neighborhood, she said, and will make do for the next couple of years by adding some portable classrooms in the schoolyard.

Clarksdale, MS

Ms. Andrea “Library” Johnson — nicknamed to avoid confusion with the principal, Ms. Amanda Johnson — reads aloud to Ricky Taylor’s first grade class.

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s the school’s first year drew to a close, everyone at Clarksdale Collegiate was feeling good.

Ricky walked with his fellow Vanderbilt University homeroom students to library class with voices on “level zero” — silently. His achievements papered the walls around him. He had smoked the ST Math computer program and beamed from a Scholar of the Week photo. He had earned a popcorn party, a trampoline trip and a special recess.

Andrea Johnson, known for clarity’s sake as Ms. Library Johnson, greeted them at the door in a dictionary of languages, “Hola! Salut! Habari gani!” Despite the school’s generally strict rules, the library was a place they could relax a little, could sit on a chaise or take their turn lolling on a loft bed. The Common Core standards emphasize nonfiction, and Johnson had a humdinger of a book to read to the class, about chocolate.

The once-quiet Ricky had become a chatterbox, but he sat quietly as Johnson read aloud about pulp and fair-trade farms and Somalia. Sometimes the reading was followed by a quiz on one of the omnipresent laptops, but not today. Ricky, like the rest, wrote one thing in his class notebook that he had learned from the book. He was the second to finish, so he settled into a comfy chair with a book he chose, “Let’s Investigate Everyday Materials.”

Clarksdale Collegiate had lived up to his hopes. The night before, he vroomed around the Dears’ circular driveway on the bike he’d learned to ride, without training wheels, in three days. He paused briefly to gush about first grade. “My favorite thing to do in school is to play on the playground. We finally have one! Finally finally finally,” he said. He also loved science class, though “it’s not like real ones. I want to make potions and stuff. That’s what a real scientist does.”

Clarksdale, MS

Ricky Taylor puts together letters on a phonics board.

But that was OK. “I love school so much I just want to hug the school,” Ricky said. He zoomed off again.

Sakenna Dear felt much the same way, both for the changes in Ricky and for herself. Johnson “really sets the tone and makes school fun,” she said. “It pushes me as a teacher and administrator to want to do more.”

Johnson rejoiced in May over the kindergarten scores: 78th percentile in reading and 81st in math on the nationally used Measures of Academic Progress test. Her vision was on track. Only one staffer was leaving, while 68 people had applied for the 15 jobs that would be available when the school reopened in July after a short summer break. Clarksdale Collegiate had a wait list at every grade, with 88 applications for kindergarten alone. “I hate telling people they’re on the wait list — which is a good problem to have,” Johnson said. Maybe, she thought, it meant the community was coming around.

Ricky Taylor, however, would not be coming back. His adoption was finalized in April, and he had a new name.

“Ricky Dear!” he said. “Dear, like the rest of my family.”

He had already begun to write it on his worksheets.

This story about Clarksdale, MS was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. Emmanuel Felton contributed reporting.

*Correction: Keithan Dear’s job title has been updated from an earlier version of this story.

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At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

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