Abandoned in America

Published — April 13, 2019

Mississippi’s education department takes over Yazoo City schools

Worn textbooks sit on the shelves of a storage room at Yazoo City High School in the summer of 2018. Nearly a third of its students are deemed "chronically absent" by the state. Sarah Kleiner / Center for Public Integrity

Move follows Center for Public Integrity’s investigation into the failing school district

Introduction

The Mississippi Department of Education has assumed control of the embattled Yazoo City Municipal School District, wiping out its school board and firing the superintendent, who was hired in February.

The public school district, which serves mostly black children, was the subject of a Center for Public Integrity investigation in October that found a startling pattern: none of Mississippi’s schools districts with more than 75 percent black students were rated A or B on the state’s accountability scale in 2018, while none of the districts with more than 75 percent white students were ranked D or F.

Graphic by Chris Zubak-Skees / Center for Public Integrity

Yazoo City has for years ranked near the bottom of the list in almost every measure of academic performance in Mississippi — a state ranked dead last in the U.S. in terms of education quality.

The investigation into Yazoo City schools was the final installment of the Center for Public Integrity’s six-part “Abandoned in America” series.

Yazoo City Municipal School District and another in the Mississippi Delta, the Humphreys County School District, will be the first two in the state to be taken over and merged into an “achievement school district.” The superintendents of both districts will lose their jobs by June 1, according to the Associated Press. A new superintendent was hired by the state to run the combined district.

Ronald Johnson, Yazoo City’s Ward 1 alderman, told the Center for Public Integrity on Saturday that it’s too early to tell whether the state’s takeover would be beneficial for the students.

“They’re going to have to make a believer out of me,” Johnson said of the Mississippi Department of Education. “I don’t know what they’re going to do to bring us out of an F.”

Frederick Hill, who was sworn in as the new superintendent of Yazoo City’s school district in February, could not be reached Saturday evening. Neither could Yazoo City Municipal School Board President Dave Collins or former Superintendent Darron Edwards.

In 2013, the Mississippi Department of Education decided an “extreme emergency exists” in the Yazoo City Municipal School District and considered taking control — a measure reserved for the worst performing school districts in the state.

At the time, the state’s Commission on School Accreditation “found that the situation jeopardized the educational interests of the children enrolled in the District schools.”

Without state intervention, “there would be a continuation of an inadequate and unstable educational environment thereby denying the students of the District the opportunity to learn, to excel and to obtain a free and appropriate public education,” according to a 2013 agreement signed by state and district officials.

Yazoo City’s then-incoming superintendent presented an ambitious improvement plan. The state at the time concluded it lacked the resources to take control of Yazoo City schools — it was assuming control of two other districts at the time, Mike Kent, interim deputy superintendent for the state education department, told the Center for Public Integrity last fall.

Local Yazoo City officials continued running the district. Their improvement plan never came to fruition because the superintendent left, Kent said.

Mississippi lawmakers passed a bill in 2016 that requires districts rated an F for two consecutive years or two out of three years to be absorbed by the state into a statewide “achievement school district.” To resume local control, districts have to be ranked with a C or better for five consecutive years. The state’s plan wasn’t implemented until now, though, because the education department couldn’t find the right person to lead the program for the available salary, Kent said.

Compounding its troubles, the Yazoo City Municipal School District is one of the many school systems in Mississippi that have re-segregated in recent decades — 49 of 145 districts are more than three-quarters black and 19 districts are more than three-quarters white.

One of the hallways in a Yazoo City school during the summer of 2018. The district is ranked 2nd lowest in terms of the share of students deemed ready for college or careers — only 5.6 percent of students met the criteria. Its graduation rate is 66.7 percent, tied for the worst in the state. Sarah Kleiner / Center for Public Integrity

Yazoo City’s school system has also faced constant upheaval at the top of the organizational chart. Georgia Ingram was appointed in July to serve as superintendent on an interim basis. At the time, she was the third superintendent in four years. She was replaced by Hill in February.

Teacher turnover has also been a problem, former teachers and school officials said last year.

Carolyn Johnson, an educator with 40 years of experience, left the Yazoo City school district in February 2018 because her 4th grade students couldn’t read, which meant they couldn’t do their math, science or social studies work either.

“It’s just been a revolving door,” Johnson said last summer.


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