By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
About this series – White students in Tupelo score well on state tests, but black students are far behind. Addressing the discrepancy is critical to the future of Tupelo and its schools. This is the second of a three-day series addressing the issue.
TUPELO – Tupelo’s achievement gap did not slow Odie Johnson III.
When Johnson, who is black, graduated from Tupelo High School in 2010, he was one of 10 students named as Six-Year Rotary Scholars that year. That distinction is given to students whose grade-point average ranks them in the top 30 of their class every year from seventh to 12th grade. It is a distinction that few black students have received.
Johnson was the only black student in his class to be a Six-Year Scholar and is one of only two black students of the 43 scholars to receive that distinction in the past four years.
Getting more black students to succeed at Johnson’s level is one key to closing the academic achievement gap between black and white students in Tupelo and raising the school district’s state ranking in the process.
Now enrolled at the University of Mississippi on a pre-med track, Johnson credits several key supports for his academic success.
He grew up in a two-parent household in which both of his parents, Odie Jr. and Earlie, pushed and encouraged him.
“It takes strong will, dedication, discipline and religion,” Johnson said of his success in school. “You need to set goals for yourself and work toward your goals. If you work toward those goals, you can accomplish anything you want to.”
Support given outside of school is a key ingredient to any student’s academic success. Parents have an important responsibility, but so do churches, civic groups and residents.
Not all students have the outside support that Johnson did, and if Tupelo is able to successfully close its achievement gap, the community must contribute to boosting low-performing students.
The most critical role falls to parents, black civic leaders say.
“There needs to be more parental involvement,” said the Rev. James Hull, a local activist and education advocate. “Parents have abdicated their responsibility of encouraging children to learn. I know parents are not trained to teach their children, but they need to be the ones to encourage their children.”
Earlie Johnson, a retired former employee of the Daily Journal, and Odie Jr., the newspaper’s packaging manager, were not wealthy but worked hard and were determined to see Odie III and his older sister, Erica, have success in school. Erica graduated with distinction from Tupelo High School in 1998 and is now an inpatient coder at North Mississippi Medical Center and for Precyse Solutions Coding Consulting.
“It starts at home, by telling children, ‘I’m your parent, not your friend,’” Earlie Johnson said. “If you are not able to help them, try to find someone who can help them, mentor them. Know what they are capable of and what they can do.”
The Rev. Robert Jamison, a former educator and longtime head of the Lee County NAACP, said parental involvement should include active participation in parent teacher organizations and extracurricular groups.
“What closes the achievement gap is more parental involvement, not school involvement – more parental involvement,” he said.
The Rev. Charles Penson acknowledged that meeting times are sometimes difficult for parents, but said that both the school district and parents should work together to increase attendance from all segments of the population.
Where parents are unable to participate, or are absent, is where the broader community can play a role. The rise of broken families and single-parent households means that many students are not getting the family support they once did.
“Because we have a new kind of family, the family is not doing what it needs to do,” said the Rev. Dolphus Weary, a longtime leader of Christian anti-poverty and racial reconciliation ministries in Mississippi. “Therefore, our community needs to rise up, and the school needs to rise up and say, ‘These are still our children.’ It is not about who can spew the most negative, it is about saying, ‘How can we rise up and save our children?’”
One way to do so is through tutorial or mentor programs.
Bishop Clarence Parks of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo, proposed a hybrid program that churches could host after school or on weekends with the help of school personnel, who could notify the churches of the needs of individual students.
“Sometimes we crowd the child and try to get everything done during the week, but maybe we could have a weekend program,” he said. “We could get volunteer teachers or maybe the community could raise money for teachers.”
The Rev. Gerald Patterson of Words of Faith Ministries in Tupelo said that his church has had success with a youth leadership institute that aims to help students academically, spiritually and socially. The program includes after-school tutoring and GED classes for parents. It also pairs students with mentors, who attend school functions with children if parents are unable to go.
Several of those interviewed spoke of the value of mentor programs. Nathaniel Stone, a longtime former Tupelo principal, remembers that when he was a student at the then all-black Carver High School, it would have a profound impact when the school’s alumni would return and address the students.
“We saw them, and they were a motivation to us,” he said.
Groups also could help just by providing new experiences for students. Many educators say one big reason for the achievement gap is that wealthier students have more exposure to experiences that make the things they learn in school become more relevant.
Tupelo Middle School Principal Kristy Luse remembers taking a bus trip to Memphis one time with a group of students. One of those students asked Luse to keep her awake so she could see the county sign when she left Lee County for the first time.
Luse said anything that parents or community groups could do to expand the worlds of students would be helpful.
“Even if you can’t expose children to these grand things, pick one thing – a school activity or a trip to Memphis,” she said. “There are things that are close and don’t require a lot of funding.”
Tupelo High School Assistant Principal Tim Carter said he sees children at his school who no longer have dreams or who have never dared to dream.
“We need to get them to dream again,” he said. “That dream comes from parents and the local community.”
At the same time, educators and black leaders said, the community will need to be supportive of efforts to help lower- performing students if the district is going to close its achievement gap.
Jamison spoke of the community backlash to programs designed by previous Superintendent Randy Shaver to address those students.
“I saw Dr. Shaver moving to a system concerned about everyone, and I think it ticked off a lot of people because he wasn’t concerned just about the elite,” Jamison said.
Said Hull: “If someone stood on a stage in Tupelo and said 41 percent of white males between ages 11 and 16 were dropping out of high school, the whole world would stop the train. They would say, ‘Stop everything, we need to fix this problem.’”
Meanwhile, black leaders also said education must be valued more by many black families. Jamison said he doesn’t see the same fervent desire for education in the black community as he did in the past.
Weary warned of peer pressure that sometimes hinders black students by leading them to believe that it isn’t cool to do well in school. That pressure, he said, must be overcome.
“In the minority community, there is a lot of pressure on a kid who is determined to make A’s,” he said. “My son, we were telling him to do his best and peers were saying, ‘Don’t do your best because you are making us look bad.’
“Peer pressure is there, and I don’t know what the answer is. We need to start celebrating successes more and say, ‘You can do better than you are doing.’”
A lack of students respecting teachers has been cited by many in the community for causing discipline problems in Tupelo’s schools that distract from educational achievement. Greater cultural emphasis on education could help with that.
Odie Johnson, the Rotary Scholar, said he did not face peer pressure that held him back academically. His mother said she spoke to him about that at an early age.
“A lot of it is strong will,” Earlie Johnson said. “I told him, you are going to school for OJ. You are not going for me, you are going to make a living, or you will be working on a garbage truck.”
WHY IT MATTERS
COMMUNITY RESPONSE Parents, churches and civic groups can boost school efforts. (Story above)
SCHOOL RESPONSE Success will mean changing approaches, traditional schedules.
Click here for story.
BLACK TEACHERS Some say adding black educators would help reduce the gap.
Click here for story.
For archives of the series and further discussion, visit http://djournal.com/pages/education_special.