Opinion

How one tiny Mississippi school district pushes back against daunting odds

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Teach for America trainee Paige Eslinger dances with third graders at a summer school program at East Sunflower Elementary in the Mississippi Delta.

Teach for America trainee Paige Eslinger dances with third graders at a summer school program at East Sunflower Elementary in the Mississippi Delta.

TUNICA, Miss. — This summer, Sunflower County ran an intensive four-week program to give students who have failed statewide tests a final chance to avoid repeating the third grade.

By summer’s end, ten more students had successfully passed the assessment and moved on to the fourth grade, bringing our third grade passage rate to 90 percent.

The children of the Sunflower County Consolidated School District, where I am superintendent of schools, are working hard to overcome preexisting deficits, deficits lingering from three previously separate school districts. The three districts all rated poorly and failing at some point, are now consolidated.

Related: Full court press for Mississippi third graders in summer school has disappointing results

In a recent Hechinger Report article, Nick Chiles writes that “Sunflower County is one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the nation.”

While this is true, I write now to assure the public that the history here is not our focus, the future of our children is. Their education is paramount.

Our tenured teachers are combining their wealth of knowledge and experience with the energy and cutting edge training of new certified teachers. Both of which are being held together and guided by a leadership team that works smart and hard.

Related: Can a successful model from Harlem deliver ‘Promise’ to schools in rural Mississippi?

Though the task at times feels daunting, we rise to the occasion because we are true educators in the Sunflower County Consolidated School District.

The standards, timelines, historical record and statistical data can all appear to be stacked against us; it matters not, because we choose to focus on the children and their needs.

With that at the center of our mission, we provide educational environments where every child will learn.

Related: Mississippi has a school funding fight on its hands: Will kids be the winner?

The district embraces the opportunity to lead this county out of its current status quo by properly, holistically, and lovingly educating tomorrow’s leaders today.

We are honored to be located and operating in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. No historical data will change that.

As superintendent of this newly formed district, I boldly stand to lead the Sunflower County Consolidated through this period of transition into the prosperity of our efforts which awaits us.

Related: Can five-year-olds in Mississippi conquer the common core?

I hold myself and my entire team accountable for our successes and our areas of opportunity.

Most importantly, the district’s team is united for excellence and dedicated to ensuring every child learns.

A Herculean task was placed before us. No special consideration was sought or given due to the prior years of state conservatorship, the failed systems that proceeded it, or the fact that the district was in its inaugural year; still we performed.

Related: After years of reform, a sign of hope for a rural Mississippi school

Sweat from the brow of all invested parties; children, teachers, parents and administrators reflected the all hands on deck approach of a community and newly created, but definitely improved school system, committed to delivering quality education to the children of Sunflower County.

That’s where the pride in our 90 percent passage rate comes from.

As for the 10 percent yet to meet the benchmark (34 students out of 353), there is success in that number as well. In that number are children who improved their test scores by 15, even 20 points.

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There are children with special educational needs and learning disabilities that consistently improved toward the benchmark that isn’t lowered for them, it’s identical for all students.

Finally, there are children who missed the required score by less than 10 points, a couple missed by fewer than 2 or 3 points, all gaps we are confident we can close.

Our children matter most here in Sunflower County Consolidated. The aforementioned improvement toward the benchmark for some and over it for others is proof that the summer program was beneficial and effective.

Related: Getting to graduation: Mississippi’s statewide push to keep kids in school

The third-graders and all other students of Sunflower County are in great hands.

Our teachers and staff are resilient, our district is stronger, and our student performance is better than before. Unite with us for excellence.

Great things are happening here.

Dr. Debra Dace is the superintendent of Mississippi’s Sunflower County Consolidated School District.

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

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Debra Dace

Dr. Debra Dace is the superintendent of Mississippi’s Sunflower County Consolidated School District. See Archive

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