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High school students from Jackson Public Schools gather to discuss ways to improve district schools at Jackson Convention Complex in Mississippi last week.
High school students from Jackson Public Schools gather to discuss ways to improve district schools at Jackson Convention Complex in Mississippi last week. Credit: Photo:Liz Willen/ The Hechinger Report

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

JACKSON, Miss. — The scene at this city’s sprawling downtown convention complex last week seemed like a celebration among the crowd of parents, grandparents, school officials and students, instead of a mutual acknowledgement that drastic change is needed in this capital city’s public schools.

Loud cheering, a drum line, endless applause and a full buffet at Jackson’s convention center on Thursday night accompanied the release of a report that could herald in a top-to-bottom overhaul of the 24,000-student school system here.

The report includes a host of major recommendations, among them establishing a plan to recruit and retain teachers, revamping curriculum, restructuring the central office, and better serving students with special needs.

The strategies outlined in the report are aimed at improving student achievement in the district and avoiding a controversial state takeover. If the recommendations are adopted, they could spark an unprecedented period of cooperation between city and state officials, including Gov. Phil Bryant, who did not attend the event, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and school officials.

The report was commissioned by a team of business leaders, educators and an outside communication firm that will work together, along with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to push for change. (The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)

The report does not sugarcoat the system’s problems. It contains some truly painful findings about Jackson schools, including the district’s lack of advanced placement and college prep courses at the high school level. The report found that less than 15 percent of seniors in the district were considered “college-and-career ready” by the state Department of Education in 2017.

Such findings came as no surprise to Grace Blount, a 17-year-old senior at Murrah High School. “The number one thing I believe we need is more support for the students,” Blount said. She added that she would like to have more help with her college applications, although she worries that her education hasn’t prepared her properly for college.

At Thursday night’s release celebration, Jackson Mayor Lumumba walked around the room speaking to parents and students, and made a passionate plea for all in the audience to get involved in the push for change.

“If we don’t have a community that buys in, we will have no chance of success,’’ Lumumba said, noting that state takeovers have not worked previously.

Improving the school system will require patience, diligence and community support, officials noted on calls with the media and before the large audience. All the recommendations are worth serious consideration, Jackson Superintendent Errick Greene told the crowd.

But he also offered a stark assessment: “The reality is, we don’t have the capacity right here today to do everything right now,” Greene said. “There is no not doing the work. We’ve got to do it all. The question is what we do first.”

This story about Jackson Public Schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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