Education Nation

Commentary: The Fight for Education Equity in Mississippi

Over the past school year, NBC News producer Andrew Hongo made several trips to Greenville, MS to report a story on the enduring dual school system there 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education. A former high-school teacher himself, he shares with Education Nation what he learned down in the Mississippi Delta.

On the first day of school here at Coleman Middle School in Greenville, MS, Dianne Zanders walks around as if she owns the place. And in a way, she does. She’s been the principal here for seven years—and decades before that, she walked the halls of this school as a student.

It’s clear these 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders adore her. She greets her returning students with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a “hey, my darling” or “how was your summer?” But the message she returns to more than any other is one of empowerment: “You determine what you will be in life.”

It’s a message desperately needed here.

Coleman is a struggling school. It received an “F” rating by state standards, 95% of its students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, and it’s part of a school district where the four-year graduation rate is less than 50 percent. Coleman sits in the heart of the Mississippi Delta—known for its fertile flatlands and rich musical history; but it’s also the poorest region in the state, which in turn is the poorest in the country. Ms. Zanders and her staff recognize this: their morning meetings on the first day of school revolve around making sure the students get to the cafeteria in time for breakfast, because they assume that many of these kids don’t have enough to eat at home.

Out of 650 students here, only two are white. The rest are black. The ratios are roughly the same district-wide: whites make up only 2% of the district’s student population, although they comprise more than 20% of the town’s population. Most of the white children attend one of several private schools in town. No doubt, it’s the right of any American parent to decide where their child goes to school. Still, it’s a troubling picture, 60 years after Brown v Board of Education declared separate schools inherently unequal, to see black and white children educated so separately, so unequally.

But this racial divide isn’t just a problem in schools in Greenville, nor in just the South. A recent study from UCLA shows that the South is actually the least segregated region in the nation, with the Northeast topping the list—and New York as the state with the most segregated public school system in the nation. Segregated schools are a problem in almost every American city. Perhaps it’s just that in a small town like Greenville, with a majority black population, those trends appear in starker contrast.

Greenville wasn’t always like this. Historically, Greenville was known as one of the more forward-thinking Delta towns—home to the Delta Democrat Times and progressive journalist Hodding Carter. In the late 60s, when other school districts in the Deep South were under federal desegregation orders, Greenville voluntarily integrated absent the violence seen elsewhere. Joyce Hall Parker was a junior when Greenville’s high school integrated in 1970. She says her graduating class was about 50-50 black and white, and remembers those years fondly. In an effort to be truly fair, the senior play cast two female leads for the same role—one white, and one black: Joyce.

The school system stayed fairly diverse through the 1970s. Ms. Zanders graduated in 1979 and says her class was about 65 percent black, 35 percent white. And she says there was no racial tension between students. It was only after that, in the 80s, that a combination of factors—loss of industry, a shrinking population, white flight—left the public school system overwhelmingly black.

So where did all the white children go? In 1969, a group of white families in Greenville founded Washington Academy, a private institution. Almost every Delta town has a school like this; started in the late 60s or early 70s when many districts were under federal orders to desegregate, at that time expressly for parents who did not want their children attending integrated schools. Today Washington Academy remains overwhelmingly white, with less than five percent of the student body non-white. But it seems to be more an issue of economics than of race. The school (whose headmaster, Rodney Brown, declined to be interviewed for this story) has an open admissions policy, and I spoke to one African-American mother who told me that the school was happy to admit her son as long as she could pay the tuition. Greenville’s mayor, John Cox, told me that Washington Academy has made efforts to reach out beyond the gates of its campus and has hosted several events designed to benefit all children in the community. And it should be noted that two of the parochial schools in town, Greenville Christian School and St. Joseph Catholic School, have significant black representation in their student body.

I talked with a number of white families who sent their children to these private schools, and without fail every one of them spoke of the need for a better quality of education than the public schools could offer. In Greenville, where the district has a ‘D’ rating, it’s easy to sympathize with parents who have the financial means sending their kids to schools that boast of high college acceptance rates and have newer, better-maintained facilities. In some ways these private schools reminded me of the private school I taught at when I was a teacher; they seemed genuinely committed to providing the best possible education to their students.

It’s hard to know where to begin unraveling the complex problems of a school district like Greenville, where economics, class, race and a long, troubled history intersect. One public school administrator told me that white parents simply had misconceptions about the type of education their children would get in public schools; that if they simply took that step of faith, and enrolled their child, they’d see that the instruction and resources were there. And certainly, there are students thriving in the public schools, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded them. But looking at test scores, that’s not the norm. Others told me that the real problem was not race nor economics, but societal problems: single parents, incarcerated parents, unemployed parents—all factors in a child’s academic performance. To expect school to solve all these problems is simply too much to ask.

But I left the Delta hopeful, mostly because of the dedication and excitement of the educators I met there. Ms. Zanders spoke with such unabashed pride about her school and her students’ enthusiasm. She told me she treated them the same way she’d treat her own children, giving them the love they needed daily. I saw it as I walked the halls with her, the way the girls’ faces would light up when she greeted them, or how the adolescent boys—even those a foot taller than her—would give her a big hug in the middle of the hallway. Her assistant principal, Dave Miller, originally a Californian who moved to Mississippi in 2010 with Teach for America, said he never wants to leave since he gets to be a part of something as exciting as changing students’ lives for the better. He was confident, he told me, that in the near future, Greenville’s schools would see significant transformation.

I don't know if he's right. But I've no doubt he and Ms. Zanders are making a difference in their tiny corner of the world. And that's a start.