Spotlight Exclusives

Can a Unique Partnership Transform Jackson Schools?

Sherry Lucas Sherry Lucas, posted on

Jackson Public Schools, Mississippi’s second largest and only urban school district, dodged a state takeover late last month, when Gov. Phil Bryant and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s announced a “Better Together” initiative to bring transformative change to the district.

Anti-poverty activists in the city are warily hopeful that the unique partnership using public, private and philanthropic resources can bring positive change and reform to a district that is among the nation’s poorest. Nearly 90 percent of JPS’ 30,000 students, which are 97 percent African American, qualify for free or reduced school lunches, and, according to the most recent census, the poverty rate is 23.6 percent for Hinds County, which encompasses the Jackson district.

“Optimistic. But vigilant,” Oleta Fitzgerald, Children’s Defense Fund southern regional director, described her outlook as the new plan unfolds. With JPS’ high percentage of children from low-income families, the issues aren’t simple. “We are happy for the slow-down in the takeover, but we know now that the things that MDE (Mississippi Department of Education) cited, must be dealt with … Longer term we want the children of JPS to get what they need to be successful. And, that is the heavy lift.”

The crisis was prompted in September, when the Mississippi Department of Education called for a state takeover of the district after concluding an 18-month-long investigation of JPS that charged that students are “being systematically denied a quality education.” The audit found violations of 24 of 32 accreditation standards and significant issues jeopardizing students’ safety, security and educational interests.

Parents and local activists expressed alarm at the prospects for effective reform if a takeover was led by a state government that has long been antagonistic to the city of Jackson, a majority Democratic city in a state dominated by Republican state officials and one of the nation’s most conservative GOP governors in Bryant, who was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.

Instead, Bryant and Lumumba – a recently elected liberal Democrat – agreed on an alternative that would create a coalition to develop a comprehensive plan, centering on community involvement, collaboration, and strategic investments, for the district and academic success for its students. It brings together JPS stakeholders and forms partnerships with national and local experts, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Education Commission of the States, and the Mississippi Economic Council.

Bryant called it “a better way forward for the 27,000 students in JPS.”

Even with the new plan, however, the request for a state takeover remains active, and Bryant has said he’ll approve it if he can’t show the state superintendent progress being made in six months.

JPS remains on probation and must develop a corrective action plan, due in January, detailing how it will clear accreditation violations in its schools.

But, the new plan is generating hope. A Better Together Commission of 15 members will provide an analysis of JPS’ current conditions. Community engagement will ensure their voice and vision is incorporated into any recommendations and plan. The commission will select an independent firm to do a gap analysis of where the district is now, and where it needs to be.

Lumumba praised it as an exercise in operational unity, “This is a moment is where we have taken advantage of our common interests instead of looking at our differences. This is a moment where the radical mayor and the conservative governor have worked together in order to work for the benefit of our children.”

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has identified Mississippi as a priority and Jackson as one of three target areas in the state. Its work in Jackson includes roughly $17 million in investments over the last five years that touch the Jackson Public School District, with grants in early childhood, professional development for teachers, restorative justice in schools, summer jobs programming and more, explained Kellogg Foundation program officer and commission member Yumeka Rushing. Grants aligned with gaps in the system and Kellogg strengthened its relationship with JPS leaders. Talks of a study to better understand the unique problems of JPS, connecting investments strategically and engaging those impacted, led to Kellogg’s supportive role in this pursuit.

The Kellogg Foundation is funding: a study of the education ecosystem —”what’s happening inside the schools, what’s happening at home, what’s happening in the community” Rushing said; a robust community engagement effort for input from parents, students, teachers, and community members about solutions to challenges; and outreach to national and regional education experts about model development, best practices and what might be possible in Jackson.

It’s expected the commission will need a year to conduct the study, engage the community, and create an action plan.

Jackson anti-poverty groups are encouraged by developments that maintain local control and focus an intense study of the district’s needs.

A deep look into the district and issues such as getting teachers who are qualified in specific subject areas (math, science, etc.), using technology to bring teachers into the district, and upgrading technology in the schools to 2017 standards will be welcome. “At least have those things identified as long-term goals with some short-term interventions,” Fitzgerald said. “Then, look at what kind of money is it going to take to do that,” given the city’s tax base and the number of children needing extra support for success.

“There was no victory in stopping the takeover. The victory is in, whether or not the children get what they need.”

Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi NAACP State Conference, said the compromise seems to be a positive approach, with community members working together to address challenges with JPS leaders and administrators, and continuing to plot out the future impact on JPS and the city. “At the end of the day, having strong schools positions Jackson in a way to be better economically.”

“Anytime you do anything that cements community input and cements community engagement, you’re going to add not only a holistic approach, but a very diverse approach,” Wiggins said. The crux is finding the best strategy to support kids’ learning and flourishing. “I think if you look in terms of a litmus test, to figure out if this is the way to do it, I think it passes the test.”

Nsombi Lambright, executive director of One Voice, is excited about the possibilities: “Exactly what we need in Jackson, to be able to move forward. And, I think it’s going to result in very good outcomes for our students,” she explained.

She’s particularly keen on the community engagement role, given the district’s high-poverty rate and social factors impacting children’s readiness to learn. “We know that children don’t come to school as robots. They have all kinds of needs stemming from home, nutrition, their social welfare.”

“If we just focus on test scores, then we’re going to lose every time,” Lambright continued. Successful models focus on the whole needs of children, resulting in better performance on tests. “So, I think we’ve been kind of getting it backwards here.”

Harvey Johnson Jr., former Jackson mayor and president of 100 Black Men of Jackson, is encouraged by Better Together’s favorable approach to local involvement rather than a state takeover, and looks forward to learning more. “Obviously, there’s a concern that the trigger could be pulled at any time,” he said. “I’m hoping, though, that … significant progress will be made in addressing the deficiencies and resolving them in a timely manner and that a state takeover will not come to pass.” His organization, working with JPS since its inception 27 years ago, mentors students, sponsors learning opportunities, hires tutors, and more. It has already stepped up involvement this year, focusing on a more structured relationship with mentees’ parents, and starting ACT prep sessions and vouchers for JPS students.

“Clearly, all of the socioeconomic issues that are faced by the city are brought into the classroom. So, it’s not going to be just educators that are needed. … There have to be partnerships formed and that’s what we’re about in the 100, trying to do our part and work with others to make sure that the young people grow up to be productive, contributing citizens,” Johnson said.

“I think the more actors you have with their shoulders to the plow, the better.”

Encouraged, too, is Operation Shoestring executive director Robert Langford, who sees an echo of his nonprofit’s collaborative partnerships in this path for JPS and its “thoughtful approach” to assessing needs and opportunities.

“I don’t think any of the parties involved … would deny that they really want Jackson Public Schools to be as effective as it can be in order to support the kids and families … and ensure that the local voice informs decisions about what happens, so I’m really encouraged. Collaboration is always a little bit of a messy business, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn from other people, and none of us can do this work alone.”

“It’s a start,” said retired educator Corinne Anderson, whose connections, as president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and policy/advocacy focus with STAND (Sisters Taking Action and Nurturing Decision Makers) and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women’s local chapter, kept a watchful eye on this process. “It’s just a giant step forward and it’s certainly a giant step forward for Mississippi, that we’re even looking … at something creative and innovative rather than just following the old standard procedures.

“I think it’s a wakeup call to the community at large, that we have not been doing our part in terms of helping to monitor what’s going on in our schools, and I’m putting myself in that basket as well,” Anderson continued. Concerned about the time frame facing JPS for a corrective action plan and work on accreditation standards, she suggested mock visits by volunteers—perhaps AAUW Jackson branch members, if such a plan could work —might help keep improvements on track.

“The nucleus of our future is right there in those schools.”

Sherry Lucas is a Jackson-based freelance writer, a native Mississippian, a graduate of the state’s public school system and a resident of its capital city for nearly 35 years.

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