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BRANDON, MISS. — Rico Walton Jr.’s mother died when he was 15, and his academic life soon spiraled downward. Infractions tallied up. Tardiness, talking back to teachers, threats, fights. Walton began his senior year an entire semester behind.

“I had no learning disorder,” he said. “I just played around.”

To catch Walton up with his classmates, the Rankin County School District enrolled him in both traditional classes and online classes, which operate like college correspondence courses. Walton doubled his academic workload, and managed to graduate on time. He’s now a freshman at Hinds Community College, working toward his dream of being a music engineer.

Graduation rates
Rico Walton, 18, came from behind to graduate on time from high school and now is hoping for a career in the music industry after he graduates Hinds Community College. (Photo: Rick Guy/The Clarion-Ledger)

Online courses like the ones Walton took are among many options available if Rankin students fall behind. The district’s academic intervention program allows students to take compressed classes and catch up in a year. Gateway to College, a partnership with Hinds Community College, encourages students to earn a high school diploma and college credits at the same time. In addition, all major courses are taught in Rankin’s summer school.

Struggling students who live some 70 miles away in the small Delta city of Durant have fewer choices, as do those in many small districts throughout the state. In Durant, the only option to make-up lost credits is in the classroom-based, online program known as credit recovery, available only to students who fail classes by a few points.

Credit recovery would not have been an option for Walton, who had to take entire classes to catch up. In fact, if Walton had attended Durant schools and started his senior year an entire semester behind, he could not have caught up with credit recovery alone, nor would he have been able to receive a diploma last spring.

The disparity of options in Rankin and Durant illustrates how vast inequities among the state’s school districts have helped produce yawning gaps in Mississippi’s graduation rates, which are among the lowest in the U.S.  

Death, divorce, financial problems, undiagnosed learning problems and untreated emotional disorders can all distract students and lead to academic failure.

Just 64 percent of Mississippi students graduated in four years during the 2009-10 school year, putting the Magnolia State ahead of only Nevada and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Education reported. Nationally, 78.2 percent of high school students graduated on time.

In addition, Mississippi’s scores on the ACT exams are well below the national average; just 12 percent of some 28,000 students who took the test in 2012 were deemed college ready in reading, English, math and science – compared to 26 percent nationwide.

Mississippi lawmakers passed new legislation last session aimed at improving education, and districts across the state are now attempting to make sense of the new reforms.

For example, a new law will prevent most students from moving to fourth grade if they’re reading below grade level. Another mandates a uniform attendance policy. And for the first time in its history, the state will pay for selected pre-school programs, potentially giving up to 3,500 children a leg up on learning before they enter kindergarten.

The state also is pushing to improve graduation rates, insisting that high schools posting rates below 80 percent submit improvement plans.

The law doesn’t specify a timeline or guidelines, but this fall the state will tell districts what to address as they restructure, said Toni Kersh, bureau director of the Office of Compulsory School Attendance Enforcement. The state may also develop a pilot plan first, she said.

Much uncertainty still remains about what will change and when.

“We cannot speculate on the impact of this new law legislation on districts until the policies are developed,” Lynn House, interim superintendent of the State Department of Education, said in a prepared statement.

In the meantime, effects of the new reforms won’t likely be felt for several years.  That means students struggling in smaller, poorer districts like Durant will have fewer opportunities to catch up and graduate on time.

It means thousands of students will be left to rely on whatever interim solutions their districts can afford to create – an inequity that blocks progress, said Anne Foster, executive director of Parents for Public Schools in Mississippi, a national organization of community-based chapters working to strengthen public schools.

“That’s still part of our problem in Mississippi,” Foster said. “Until we provide that equity, we will not see the kind of advancement in achievement we’re trying to see.”

Getting back on track

Charlotte Young, Rankin’s director of Student Support Services and Dropout Prevention, said it’s not unusual for students’ home lives to cause academic setbacks.  Death, divorce, financial problems, undiagnosed learning problems and untreated emotional disorders can all distract students and lead to academic failure.

In Walton’s case, his mother’s death changed his outlook on life.

“It made me see we just live to die,” he said.

Young, who makes school and home visits throughout her district, identifies students like Walton who might benefit from non-traditional paths to graduation, including taking classes at Rankin County Learning Center, the district’s alternative school.

Walton was sent to the Learning Center during his junior year at Brandon High School because he’d gotten in trouble. He and his father decided on home schooling instead, and Walton missed an entire semester. When he returned to Brandon High his senior year, he had to finish his assigned time at the Learning Center.

Walton sighs when talking about falling behind. Learning disabilities may cause some students get behind, but he and many others don’t have that problem.

“I know it’s not every kid’s fault,” Walton said, “but we have to stop playing around and get on with what we need to do.”

That’s exactly what Walton did, and it worked, said Young, adding that getting students like Walton on an academic level with their peers by ninth-grade makes it more likely they will graduate.

Larger, wealthier districts in Mississippi can save students like Walton by offering richer and deeper academic programs and more options. Rankin County is in one of the state’s more prosperous regions; its July unemployment rate (the most recent figure available) was 4.6 percent, the lowest in the state; 10 percent of its residents live below the poverty level.

Rankin has about 19,500 students, more than 20 campuses and countless extracurricular activities, including several bands. The state graded it a “B,” on its most recent report card.

In comparison, Durant is in struggling Holmes County, where 43 percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty level and the median income is just above $22,000. The July unemployment rate was 18.2 percent, the second highest in the state. Many parents look for jobs elsewhere and move their children to other districts.

Durant’s school district enrolls only about 560 students. With far less revenue, the district has little budgetary flexibility—and it shows. All of the school buildings are housed on one small campus. The high school has football and basketball teams but can’t afford a band.

The state labeled Durant a “D” district, based largely on test scores.

“A poor school district is still a poor school district, and it’s reflected in everything down the line,” said William Jones, a member of the state Board of Education.

Not “enough staff” for summer school

Willie Dale, who recently retired from his post as the only principal of Durant’s school district, said his district simply can’t afford many programs or interventions. He wished they could have offered summer school, but said “we don’t have enough staff for that.’’

Financially strapped districts like Durant can devise creative solutions to stretch their resources, like partnering with other districts to provide summer school – but there are limits.

“It’s going to be based on the money, at the end of the day, and whether you can have additional personnel,” said Kersh of the state’s attendance office.

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