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Angie Rawls, choral director at Pearl High School in Mississippi, leads students in a vocal exercise. Choral students have received numerous accolades under Rawls’ direction. Credit: Sarah Warnock/The Clarion Ledger

PEARL, Miss.— On the first Wednesday of December, the stage risers were out and the backlights were on as the women’s choir rehearsed in the Pearl High School Performing Arts Center. The group blending their voices in harmony the auditorium that morning reflected the school’s diversity: About 37 percent of students attending school in this Jackson suburb are black, 49 percent are white and 7 percent are Latino.

Pearl Superintendent Raymond Morgigno stood in an aisle a few rows back from the orchestra pit, taking in the music. A few moments later, he slipped out and made his way toward the construction site of the school’s future multipurpose wing. Thanks to a strong local tax base, the district has set aside money for the 20,600 square foot building, which will cost $4.1 million and house fine arts classrooms and a practice gymnasium.

“Folks here have always been willing to step up for education,” said Morgigno who has served as superintendent since 2010.

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Part of that buy-in stems from parents’ approval of the way kids are assigned to schools in this largely working-class central Mississippi town. Pearl organizes its schools by grade level instead of by neighborhood, an arrangement that results in integrated classrooms in which black, white and Latino students, and low-income, working-class and middle-class students are given access to the same experienced teachers, challenging curriculum and well-kept facilities.

Pearl High School Principal Chris Chism has witnessed these efforts pay off. It’s common for graduates to earn high-skills credentials from community colleges or enroll in the state’s public universities. Members of previous classes have also been accepted to prestigious out-of-state institutions, like Howard University and the nation’s military academies.

Pearl High School Principal Chris Chism stands outside a technology classroom during a Friday morning homeroom period in Pearl, Mississippi. Credit: Sarah Warnock/The Clarion Ledger

“We have people beating down the door to get our kids,” Chism said.

While Pearl boasts an A-rating, it hasn’t eliminated test score gaps between black and white students. The score gap on English tests is 15 percentage points and on math tests the gap between the district’s black and white students is nearly 17 percentage points. But statewide, the gap between white and black students in both subjects is almost 30 percentage points. It’s evident that student achievement here has been boosted by access to strong schools in which teachers regularly earn national board certification. The district is one of only five in Mississippi in which the percentage of black students mastering grade-level English language arts standards exceeds the state’s average.

Those figures may seem at odds with the state’s 2019 NAEP scores, in which black students outperformed their national peers on the fourth-grade reading exam. But a breakdown of data shows the state’s legacy of racial inequality persists. White fourth graders were twice as likely to score proficient on the exam as their black peers.

“Folks here have always been willing to step up for education.”

Schools have struggled to close these gaps, under pressure to ensure that 70 percent of the state’s students score proficient or above on Mississippi’s standardized math and English language arts tests by a state-imposed deadline of 2025. In the 2018-19 school year, black students met the state’s interim proficiency targets for English and math in only two districts: Madison County School District and Clinton Public Schools. Clinton is one of only two majority-black school districts in the state to earn an A rating. It also maintains one of the most successful school integration plans in Mississippi. Like Pearl, the district organizes its schools by grade level instead of by neighborhood.

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Despite the districts’ strong performance, there seems to be little effort to replicate Clinton and Pearl’s carefully planned racial and economic integration efforts. In the 2016-17 school year, 44 percent of black students in Mississippi attended a public school considered “intensely segregated,” making the state the 10th most segregated in the nation, according to research compiled by the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Tyler Mckenzie, 18, is a senior at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi. The student body president said strong community support makes it possible for him and his peers to take advantage of the school’s extracurricular activities, ranging from archery to the National Honors Society. Credit: Sarah Warnock/The ClarionLedger

Pearl High student Tyler McKenzie, who graduates this spring, believes there are special non-academic benefits for students in integrated schools, beyond avoiding the problems so often inherent in segregated schools. He is convinced there’s something about having attended the same schools together since kindergarten that makes students want to work together. It also means they feel comfortable approaching their peers if they are hurt or offended by insensitive comments.

McKenzie, who is black, also said his classmates’ diverse backgrounds help them learn in a way that taps into their own experiences. He remembers a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement in which a Latino peer reflected on the struggles his community faces today. Race is a topic that even adults can struggle to handle, but McKenzie said it’s common for his classmates to open up to each other.

15 percentage points v. 30 percentage points: The reading score gap between black and white students in Pearl, Mississippi versus the same gap in the state as a whole.

A few moments after the first bell at Pearl, McKenzie and a classmate explained why their teachers trust them to keep conversations civil.

“We’ve all came up together, so we’re comfortable together,” he said. “The teachers don’t try to intervene too much.”

“We’ve learned not to judge each other for our differences,” added Madison Temple, a white junior.

W

hen Morgigno’s family moved to Pearl in the late 1970s, the city had recently split from the larger Rankin County School District and formed its own school district. Arthur Jernigan, who helped file the incorporation papers for the district and has served as its board attorney ever since, said parents, frustrated with aging facilities in the attendance zone, pushed for the exodus.

“They thought they could do better,” he said.

At that time, dozens of the state’s districts were under federal oversight following a desegregation lawsuit and the court took note of Pearl’s split. Like the district it left behind, Pearl was required to abide by a desegregation order and to report regularly the racial makeup of its schools.

Though Rankin County was 28 percent black in 1970, the census that year showed black residents accounting for less than 1 percent of Pearl’s population. Prior to the district’s split, kids living outside Pearl’s city limits were part of its attendance zone. After its secession, Jernigan said the new district agreed to keep much of the same boundaries in order to maintain “racially balanced” schools.

Madison Temple, 16, a junior at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi, talks with a classmate during homeroom. Temple, an honors student and Pearl High School dance team member, also belongs to an academic honors society. The campus has several extracurricular offerings. Credit: Sarah Warnock/The Clarion Ledger

When Pearl launched, students were initially zoned for elementary school according to their neighborhood. By the early 1990s, however, a growing number of parents in the county’s southern attendance zone pushed the district to confront the question of whether it was providing all of its students with a level playing field. Children living on the north side of town attended an elementary school that had received a blue-ribbon designation from the U.S. Department of Education in the late 1980s. Parents of children on the south side of the county wanted the same quality of education for their kids.

Sondra Odom, now a Pearl school board member, was part of a parent and community committee that studied the issue and ultimately recommended the district organize schools by grades instead of neighborhoods.

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“We’ve all came up together, so we’re comfortable.”

She credits the district’s former superintendent, the late William Dodson, with having the courage to make what was then an unpopular decision among parents who preferred neighborhood schools.

“Some people were naturally upset at uprooting children every few years,” Odom said. “He based the decision on the data and what was in the best interest of the school district as a whole.”

Though the district’s desegregation order wasn’t the impetus for the restructuring, the arrangement ensured schools reflected Pearl’s racial and socioeconomic makeup.

The pockets of blue-collar families living paycheck-to-paycheck in Pearl doesn’t match the more extreme poverty of the Mississippi Delta, but median wages in the town of about 26,500 are lower than in neighboring cities. About 35 percent of Pearl’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. As a teen, Morgigno developed a thick skin after he caught on that the town’s working-class reputation was sometimes the butt of jokes. By the time Morgigno was in junior high school, the town had become more racially diverse, with a population that was about 11 percent black. Today, about 28 percent of residents are black and 4.5 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

But students from all economic and racial backgrounds have helped the district rack up accolades and earn an A rating like some of its wealthier neighbors.

Roslyn Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina who has researched the effects of desegregation, found that students who experience K-12 education in diverse classrooms are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods and enroll their kids in integrated schools as adults.

“That’s no small feat, as housing and schooling are closely tied,” she said.

Elizabeth Beers, who graduated from Pearl in 2011, moved her family here recently because of the schools. Her spouse attended a private school in neighboring Madison County, where few students of color were enrolled. She knew she wanted something different for their now 4-year-old daughter.

“I wanted my child to grow up in a place where she knew it was OK to accept everyone,” Beers said.

Though there are two small religious academies in the district and several more within the Jackson suburbs, most Pearl families enroll their children in the city’s public schools. Even as the city has faced budget challenges and layoffs in recent years, Pearl residents have continued to support their integrated schools at a property tax rate above the state’s average.

“I wanted my child to grow up in a place where she knew it was OK to accept everyone.”

Community members take pride in the high school’s impressive facilities, college-level courses and extracurricular options, from archery to the National Honor Society, that rival those of some of the state’s most affluent districts.

A multipurpose building to house fine arts classrooms and a gym is under construction at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi. Credit: Sarah Warnock/The Clarion Ledger

To confront the district’s achievement gaps, Morgigno said, teachers focus on setting high academic expectations for all students and looking at data to identify which children need more help. Scores for students overall and for most subgroups in the district are on an upward trajectory, and the achievement gap between black and white students in math and English has continued to narrow.

When the district learned the majority of its students weren’t considered ready for kindergarten, Morgigno was alarmed, and moved quickly to address the problem, even though most of the district’s 6-year-olds — who scored below the state’s kindergarten readiness benchmark in the fall — were well prepared for first grade by the end of the year. The district began making plans to use Title I funds to help launch a pre-K program.

While making the rounds on a recent morning, Morgigno couldn’t resist stepping into the band hall where plaques reflecting the band’s decades-long streak of superior ratings adorn the walls.

“Our kids can compete with anyone,” Morgigno said.

On his way back to the district’s central office from the high school, Morgigno took a turn into the neighborhood that he grew up in as a kid, its streets still dominated by 1970s-style ranch homes. With a bit of nostalgia, he noted the homes were now older, but still a great place to raise another generation of Pearl Pirates.

“Our challenge is to tell our story, so people will want to renovate a five-bedroom here, instead of building somewhere else,” Morgigno said.

Back in the district’s parking lot, he let the engine idle trying the find words to describe the changes he’s seen in the last decade: “We’re more diverse than we’ve ever been, but we’re stronger than we’ve ever been.”

This story about integrated schools was produced as a collaboration between the Clarion-Ledger and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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