THE HECHINGER REPORT, February 10, 2020 by Bracey Harris

The Supreme Court’s decision in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education was supposed to force Southern schools to desegregate after more than a decade of stalling. Half a century later, another generation of students won't experience its promise.

LEXINGTON, Miss. — Samara Rand’s new colleagues at Holmes County Central High School gave her a warning on her first day: Never turn off the air conditioning. Even if the students complained. Warm classrooms in the 60-year-old building would smell like urine, her co-workers told her.

“Get you some air freshener,” a ninth-grade biology teacher advised her.

When it rains, the roof of the decades-old facility leaks. During the worst downpours, hallways flood. Attempts to raise taxes to build a state-of-the-art high school in this high-poverty district have failed. Rand is new to teaching at Holmes Central, but she spent three years here as a student. Since she graduated in 2013, the name of the old high school had changed, but not much else.

The girls’ bathrooms still don’t have mirrors, and the plumbing is often broken. Rand recognized the classroom sets of literature books she studied from as a senior. Now they have pages missing. When she was a student, substitutes taught her geometry and biology; the district still struggles to attract teachers. Rand, like nearly one in five members of the district’s teaching staff, has a temporary license. Back in 2013, more than a fifth of her senior class didn’t graduate. The class of 2018 didn’t fare much better. Just 70 percent of seniors earned their diplomas, 14 points below the state average. If the district receives another failing grade this year, the state could take it over.

But a troubled school system is nothing new in a state that has long failed to provide all of its children with an equal, integrated education. For almost as long, over a half century, black families in Holmes County have taken to the courts and organized to challenge the conditions in their children’s schools. In Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, a federal lawsuit filed in 1965, black parents protested that their children were taught by teachers who were lower-paid and less trained than those assigned to white students, in schools “inadequate in size and facilities.” They argued the all-white school board spent more money on white students. While the black families had some legal victories, little changed.

Four years after the case was filed, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the stonewalling and ordered immediate desegregation in Holmes County and 32 other Mississippi school districts in a sweeping decision that, within two years, sent 2.6 million black children all across the Deep South to integrated schools — more than triple the year before the court handed down its decision.

But in many Southern districts, the opportunity was fleeting. Fifty years after the Alexander v. Holmes decision, black students in the Mississippi Delta remain shut out from an equal education. The hairstyles and accessories in the senior portraits lining the halls at Holmes County High have changed from year to year, but the color of the students’ skin has stayed the same. While the county is about 16 percent white and 82 percent black, the public schools are nearly all black. Fewer than 30 white students are enrolled in the entire district, a steep decline from the fall of 1966, when about 6,000 black students and 1,000 white students attended the county’s schools. On the county’s western edge, in the Delta, white students deserted the district in droves.

White residents made up 30 percent of the Holmes County population in 1970; today the population is 16 percent white. Most of the remaining white families send their children to a private school that opened more than 50 years ago to help white children avoid racial integration.

Although families in Holmes County no longer challenge the de jure segregation that existed before the 1969 Supreme Court’s decision, they continue to fight to improve their children’s educational opportunities in a district that is now segregated de facto, and has continued to struggle in the last few decades. But their claims that their children are underserved academically are sometimes overshadowed by the state’s recent academic success. State and federal education leaders have feted Mississippi’s four-year stretch of improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fourth graders in the state from almost every racial and economic background improved their scores on the exam. They performed as well as their peers in other states in reading, and better than the nation’s average in math. The gap in scores between Mississippi’s black and white children also decreased, to one of the smallest in the nation.

And yet the gap for black students in the state is far from being eliminated: White fourth graders were twice as likely to score proficient on their reading test as their black peers. The state’s overall scores also hide deep disparities in its poorest, most isolated districts. Almost 76,000 black students account for 90 percent or more of the enrollment in more than a fifth of the state’s schools, and the gulf in academic outcomes is indisputable. Low tests scores on state tests are endemic: In Holmes, for example, just 17 percent of students are considered proficient in English and fewer than 20 percent of students are proficient in math.

In Mississippi, nearly 33,000 students — almost all of them African American — attend a school district rated as failing, like Holmes. White students account for less than 5 percent of enrollment in these districts, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of state data.

And although white and black students make up a similar proportion of Mississippi’s student population, white students were more than twice as likely to attend one of Mississippi’s 31 A-rated school districts this year, according to 2018-19 enrollment data.

Decades of population loss and some of the lowest state spending per student in the country have taken their toll in the Mississippi Delta. Here, some of the nation’s poorest and blackest school districts struggle to recruit qualified and experienced teachers, expand access to learning experiences that can give students more opportunities to succeed in college, and raise the money needed to fix or replace run-down buildings.

The effects of these inequalities in public education ripple throughout children’s lives. Nearly one in four white residents in Holmes County has a college degree, while census data shows black adults here are less likely to finish college than their counterparts in most other parts of the country. Only 8 percent have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. Families in Holmes County earn some of the lowest wages in the country, with more than 40 percent of the county’s residents living below the federal poverty line. The median household income for black residents in Holmes County is just above $18,000 a year, the second lowest in the country’s poorest state.

Rand grew up 17 miles outside of Lexington, the county seat, in a close-knit working-class community called Acona. She speaks fondly about living on the same dirt road as most of her extended family. Her mother was an English teacher and, as a kid, Rand loved playing school with her cousins, passing out worksheets photocopied by her mom.

Rand was a star student, yet she arrived in college underprepared. She was also one of the few students with solid prospects of going at all: Her senior class averaged 14.8 on the ACT. Students typically need to score a 16 to gain admission to Mississippi’s public universities. A few of Rand’s classmates sought promising jobs at an assembly plant in neighboring Madison County. Others took on shifts at convenience stores.

Kameisha Smith, who graduated in Rand’s senior class, estimated up to half of her classmates who pursued college didn’t finish. “The foundation our school district laid wasn’t a solid one,” she said.

Smith had to take remedial math her freshman year at Tougaloo College, a private historically black college in Jackson. She withdrew after being placed on academic probation. She now works at the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, a nonprofit in Holmes County that advocates at the state and local level for investing in public schools. She’s thinking about finishing her college degree online.

Her work for the nonprofit has taken on a special urgency: She worries about her younger sister, now in ninth grade, who has had substitutes rotate in and out of her classes since the sixth grade.

Bryant Clark, a state legislator from Holmes County, witnessed the promise of desegregation and its disappointments. The son of Robert Clark, the first black lawmaker elected in Mississippi since Reconstruction, Rep. Clark, a Democrat, remembers a connection with talented teachers who did the best they could with what they had. He remembers, also, how inadequate those resources were to address the deep needs of his community, much less provide the basics. In recent years, he’s authored legislation to provide badly needed funds.

“Despite all of the challenges that they might face academically in the county, you have people who are able to still rise up, and still go on to college,” Clark said. “You can’t help but to wonder if they were provided the same resources, or they had the same resources they had in other districts, the things they could do or the paths they could take.”

Mississippi’s legislative leaders have yet to support the efforts of Clark and other lawmakers, who have been pushing for full funding for years. Since 2003, public schools in the state have only been fully funded twice. State leaders have instead backed broad turnaround strategies, such as merit pay for improving scores in poorly performing schools, and called for more school choice, a solution supported by United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. When she toured Holmes Central High School’s virtual pilot AP Physics program, in the fall of 2018, she advocated for “freedom and flexibility”— not additional spending.

Educators and students here, meantime, dream about what new school buildings, enough licensed teachers, new books, or even just a fresh coat of paint on peeling classroom walls would mean for them. Local opinions differ over how much blame should be assigned to the state’s legacy of segregation. But Rand does wonder about the segregation academy that opened more than 50 years ago and is still in operation across town from her school.

“It’s still teaching kids there’s a black school and there’s a white school,” she said.

As a kid, Bryant Clark would listen to the loosened gravel crunching under his school bus and watch the dust stir up as he rode past farm plots like the ones his father once plowed. His dad was so young when he started in the fields, he had to reach up for the plow handles towering above his head.

By the time Clark started school in 1980, black children in Holmes County weren’t sent home early from school to pick cotton. But some things hadn’t changed.

In the mornings, black kids like Clark rode on yellow school buses to Lexington Elementary; the white kids boarded blues ones that took them to private school.

Clark, the child of a black activist and lawmaker, knew all kids didn’t learn this way, going to separate schools in separate buses. For years, he and his older brother accompanied his widowed father up to Jackson and attended an integrated magnet school during the legislative session.

People used to ask his dad if he thought the county’s schools would ever integrate, Clark never imagined it would eventually become the “million-dollar question” for him, too.

For a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which called for integration, Mississippi continued to operate segregated schools. That began to change when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark anti-discrimination law that, among its provisions, denied federal funds to segregated schools. Under the act, the Justice Department also began suing districts that were delaying desegregation, providing another avenue for black parents to apply pressure on their local school districts.

During the winter term in 1965, 250 black students in Lexington, the county seat of Holmes, and 125 students from nearby Tchula asked their principals to persuade the all-white school board to obey Brown v. Board. Neither the principals nor the school board followed through, and district officials refused to meet with a group of black parents requesting a timeline for school integration.

That July, the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP filed a lawsuit in the Southern District Court of Mississippi on behalf of 400 black school children from Holmes. District Judge William Harold Cox ordered the district to submit a desegregation plan. Historian William Hustwit writes in his book “Integration Now” that the district “took baby steps to comply.”

Holmes officials first proposed a “freedom of choice” plan, which placed the burden on black parents to dismantle segregation: Students in Holmes County were assigned to school by race, but black families could request transfers to the white schools. The obstacles were immense. District officials charged some black students tuition, parents could be fired for enrolling their child in a white school, and one family had a cross burned in front of their home. The names of plaintiffs in the Holmes County lawsuit were printed on flyers and stapled to telephone poles. A colleague of Reuben Anderson, a lawyer for the Defense Fund and, later, the state’s first black Supreme Court Justice, would walk around snatching them down.

“Freedom of choice just didn’t work,” Anderson said.

A special three-judge panel of the Southern District of Mississippi bundled Holmes with more than 30 other cases in 1968. The consolidated cases reached the Supreme Court in October the following year. In an 8-0 decision that month, the justices struck down “freedom of choice” plans and told Holmes County and the other Southern districts dragging their feet that they must “terminate” their “dual school systems at once.”

Educating black and white children in separate schools was now illegal, but Mississippi politicians had set the stage for white flight. In 1964, Mississippi’s all-white legislature had passed a law to provide tuition grants to children attending private schools. In 1965, the year black parents filed their case, Holmes County parents organized to help open three private schools for white children.

During the 1968-69 school year, almost 80 percent of the operating costs for three of the academies in the county were met by state tuition grants, according to a lawsuit challenging the program.

At the same time, Holmes school board officials allowed the town of Durant, which was 51 percent white, to split off into a separate district. By 1970, just 24 white students were enrolled in Holmes County public schools, according to an archived report. Meanwhile, a visiting Wall Street Journal reporter wrote of Holmes County’s segregation academies that “few seem to be suffering from a lack of qualified teachers; the teachers are coming from the public schools, or out of retirement, if necessary.”

Over the next decade, more white families withdrew from public schools, or left the county altogether, a loss that reduced the county’s tax rolls. Under the newfound protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voters in the majority black legislative district elected Robert Clark to represent them in 1967.

Clark had a good relationship with people in the white business community and hoped their attitude might change toward integration. “Dad was a bit surprised [that never happened],” Bryant Clark, now 45, said. “He had some hope that the two systems would come together.”

The elder Clark turned his attention to forcing the state to do better by black students. He worked on an education reform law, funding kindergarten for the first time and establishing accreditation standards, and voted with a majority of the legislature in 1997 to pass the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, to fund schools in a way that, ideally, wouldn’t leave poorer districts behind.

Its passage helped the state avoid a school finance lawsuit, but Mississippi legislators didn’t follow through to appropriate the extra dollars for schools. Since the MAEP went into full effect, the state education budget met the minimum required in only two years, 2003 and 2007.

Underfunding schools rarely costs legislators their seats. Districts with larger and more affluent tax bases are better insulated because they can make up any funding shortfall with local money. But in small, rural districts with very little local revenue, educators have had to scrimp. Over the past decade, the state has shortchanged Holmes County by nearly $15 million.

During the 2018-19 school year, Holmes County residents paid a higher rate of property taxes than the state average, but the district still raised about $2 million less locally than other districts of a similar size.  Districts that enroll between 2,500 and 3,500 students pulled in on average about $8.5 million in local revenue. Holmes County brought in about $6.5 million for its 3,100 students.

And at the other end of the revenue spectrum was the Jackson County School District, on the Gulf Coast. Jackson County’s student enrollment is three times bigger than Holmes’, but it pulled in a whopping six times more than Holmes in local tax revenue — $39.3 million.

In 2003, when Robert Clark retired, his son Bryant Clark ran for his father’s old seat. Since 2007, the younger Clark has regularly filed legislation to increase the state’s funding for impoverished students and advocated for an increase in teacher pay. Clark’s optimistic the tide will turn. His only question is whether it will be voluntary.

“I don’t know if it’ll happen in the statehouse or the courthouse, but things have got to change,” he said.

By the time Samara Rand started high school in 2009, the Mississippi Department of Education had labeled Holmes County Schools “at risk of failing.” Black families with means were leaving the district. A few enrolled in Central Holmes Christian School, a former segregation academy.

Teachers began leaving, too. Mississippi sets a minimum salary for certified teachers, but districts with more local funds for education often pay teachers a premium of from $1,000 to well over $8,000 for experienced teachers. Holmes, with its meager resources and extra challenges, had little that could entice teachers to stay.

During Rand’s freshman year at J.J. McClain High School, as it used to be called in honor of one of the county’s most prominent black educators, the district scrambled for months to attract an instructor for ninth grade biology. Despite the lack of consistent instruction, Rand passed biology, but almost half of her classmates failed on their first attempt at the state’s science exit exam.

Despite the school’s shortcomings, Rand loved it. She was named “Ms. J.J. McClain” her senior year and dreamed of attending a historically black college, like her mother and grandmother. As Rand earned community service hours tutoring children, she wondered if teaching was in her future. But becoming an entrepreneur, like her father, sounded better. Rand signed up for the district’s only AP class, calculus, hoping to impress scholarship committees with her potential.

She chose her grandmother’s alma mater Alcorn State, after a campus visit won her over, but in the first semester of her freshman year, she had to work harder to make up the material she missed in the Holmes public schools. When her English professor assigned a research paper, “the writing lab was my best friend,” she said.

Rand earned an A in freshman composition, but she felt intimidated by the math courses she’d need for a business major. Her Holmes calculus teacher had passed her, but she scored too low to earn college credit on the nationally administered AP test. Majoring in elementary education was her Plan B, but she eventually had to drop that, too, when she couldn’t pass the math section of the state’s certification exam after repeated attempts.

She resorted to an English major and returned to Holmes County in the summer of 2017 with her bachelor’s degree. Cohen’s, the large family-owned department store on the town square, had closed, and the county’s unemployment averaged 9.4 percent. The county’s 20-year-old 300-acre industrial park sat mostly bare, an ambulance station occupied a sliver of its vast space. The county had cleared brush, installed infrastructure for gas, water and sewer connections for the site, but struggled to get developers to take interest.

Rand took a job teaching fifth grade at Goodman-Pickens Elementary. She had an emergency license and no student teaching experience. She said almost half of her students needed additional support to help manage their behavior. Her colleagues told her she had the most difficult class. More than once, Rand almost walked out during her planning break, before an assistant principal could talk her down. She didn’t return the following year. Instead, she opened a business on the town square in one of the vacant store fronts, selling flavored ice treats.

State leaders have attempted to improve the state’s poor educational outcomes in recent years by requiring third graders to pass the state reading test before they can enter fourth grade, offering $10,000 bonuses for Nationally Board Certified teachers to work in the Delta, assigning schools and districts A-F ratings and, on occasion, taking over failing school districts. Mississippi’s newly elected Gov. Tate Reeves, who took
office in January, has also proposed paying new teachers a one-time $10,000 bonus to instruct in struggling areas like Holmes.

Mississippi has also made some positive traction after investing $15 million per year, in part to train and coach the state’s teachers on the science of reading and reading instruction, an investment that some officials said helped boost the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Mississippi ranked No. 1 nationally in gains in fourth grade reading and math, and near the top in eighth grade score gains in math.

To some observers, the NAEP scores suggest the state’s focus on these reforms have helped, a lot. But locals say the reforms don’t go far enough, failing to address the deeper issues of racism and poverty that are embedded in the marrow of the Mississippi Delta. Each year, districts in the region hold back dozens of third graders. At one school in Holmes, Durant Elementary, more than 80 percent of third graders failed the reading test on their first try.

Ellen Reddy, an advocate who has pushed to improve education in Holmes County said the state’s solutions haven’t reduced the challenges that dominate the average school day. Reddy, executive director of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, said the state has to step in to help districts that struggle to raise money. “The reality is we’ll always fail. We’ll always be a step behind until they put in more resources,” she said. “You get what you pay for.”

Children in communities with a high rate of poverty are at a greater risk of poor health and high levels of stress that require more support in the classroom. Years of research have documented that poverty “creates constant wear and tear on the body” and that safe learning environments, coupled with “responsive parenting and high-quality childcare” can help children progress. But it costs money to train teachers on how to support students and to hire support staff like guidance counselors.

Mississippi provides only a small amount of additional funding to give low-income students extra help. In recent years, the consulting firm EdBuild, hired to provide guidance on how to improve educational funding, advised Mississippi’s Legislature that the amount of extra funding in high-poverty schools should be five times greater than it is now. The recommendations, which came amidst a controversial effort to upend how Mississippi funds its schools, have not become law.

Holmes County spent $10,430 per student in the 2018-19 school year, $9 above the state average of $10,421. Other districts are performing better and spending less. The DeSoto County School District and Clinton Public School District, for example, are both A-rated and spend almost $2,000 less per student than the state average. But fewer than 15 percent of kids live in poverty in those districts, while about 43 percent of children in the Holmes school district live below the poverty line. While even districts like DeSoto and Clinton have been affected by the state’s teacher shortage, they employ fewer teachers with temporary licenses than Holmes.

Holmes remains strapped for new teachers; the district is unable to compete with stipends offered in the Jackson suburbs and elsewhere that are far above — sometimes even double — what Holmes can offer. Legislators recently decided the county was too poor to support two school systems, forcing the Holmes and Durant districts to combine in 2018. Like Holmes, the Durant district was almost entirely black.

Erica Frankenburg, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University, said spending at the state’s average can fall short in districts with multiple challenges. “It may not be enough to provide the same resources if, for example, the student body has disadvantages that are going to be concentrated in schools and classrooms,” she said.

Poverty only compounds the problems for segregated schools. Gary Orfield, director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, said fewer classroom resources, coupled with a scarcity of experienced teachers, adds to the challenges faced in high-poverty schools. “It’s not race, it’s what race is tied to,” he said.


Date Published

Monday, February 10, 2020