BRIDGING THE GAP: Tupelo's pressing challenge: Achievement gap threatens city, schools' future

By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – White students in Tupelo score better than white students in most Mississippi school districts on state tests.
Black students in Tupelo lag far behind.
That discrepancy is a major reason that a school system once considered among the finest in Mississippi is now ranked in the middle of the state. Addressing it quickly is critical for the city and school district to maintain their historic success.
“It is tremendously important to the future of this community,” said Jack Reed Sr., longtime community leader and education advocate. “There is no underestimating that.”
The “achievement gap” is not unique to Tupelo. School districts across the state and the nation face discrepancies in test scores between students of different racial and economic subgroups.
But demographic changes in Tupelo make addressing its local gap as critical as it has ever been in the city’s and the school district’s history.
When Tupelo’s schools were integrated in 1970, about 80 percent of the district’s students were white. Today, those schools are about 44 percent white, 50 percent black and 6 percent other minorities.
Furthermore, analysis of the city’s demographics indicates Tupelo’s next generation is a racially-balanced mixture. Seventy-three percent of Tupelo school district residents over age 30 are white. That drops to 54 percent for those under 30.
It is becoming increasingly clear the city must successfully educate a demographic that will play such a large role in its future.
“It is absolutely imperative that we do so,” said the Rev. Charles Penson. “The demographics of our community are changing at a more rapid pace in our schools. If we want to maintain the credibility and output of our schools, we have to address this issue.”
The Daily Journal analyzed scores from this spring’s Mississippi Curriculum Test, Second Edition, the standardized test taken by all third- to eighth-grade students in the state. The newspaper averaged the scores of the 12 tests taken in every school district – English and math for each of the six grades – and broke down the results by race and by economics. The average is slightly skewed because it assumes that exactly the same number of students took the test in every grade.
In Tupelo, 74.5 percent of white students scored at least proficient, a level educators recognize as performing well on the test. That percentage ranks in the top 30 of 150 school districts in the state for test scores by white students.
Meanwhile, 39 percent of the district’s black students scored proficient, a total that ranks in the bottom 40 for black students in the 150 districts. The 35.5 percentage point gap between the two groups was the fourth largest in the state.
The economic gap was not much different. Seventy-five percent of students who don’t live in poverty scored proficient, but only 39 percent of those receiving federal school meal subsidies reached that mark.
“We are now becoming aware that if everyone is not well-served, we won’t be successful as a whole,” said Billy Crews, longtime education advocate and a member of a committee recently formed by the CREATE Foundation to study the achievement gap in Northeast Mississippi. “Schools won’t be successful, the community won’t be successful and economic development won’t be successful. The system is not going to be successful if everyone is not well-served.”
Today, the Daily Journal begins a three-day series analyzing this gap and ways for the community and school district to work together to close it. As part of its reporting, the newspaper conducted 42 interviews over the past two months. Although not all of those voices are printed in this series, they were all important to paint a picture of the issue.
Closing the achievement gap doesn’t mean moving both higher- and lower-performing students into the middle, education experts say. Instead, it means studying systems, supports and community involvement to find ways to better reach lower-scoring demographics, and pushing everyone to score higher.
Tupelo School Board Vice President Eddie Prather, a former school superintendent and co-chairman of the CREATE committee studying the achievement gap, said the key is actually raising standards for all students.
“If you have high standards for high-performing students, students on the bottom will go up,” Prather said. “And if you have high standards for lower-performing students, students on the top will go up.
“Some people think you may be talking about lowering rigor, but I really think it is the opposite.”
Although the issue involves schools and students, possible solutions are much broader, those interviewed said.
“I think it is a community problem and not just a school problem,” said Claude Hartley, a former Tupelo school board member and current member of the state Board of Education. “… It has to become a priority for the community and not just the school.”
Tupelo has long been a community that has prided itself on having a strong public school system with widespread community support. That support is now at a crossroads, and is also critically needed, as the system faces the challenge of successfully educating both black and white students.
This must happen quickly. Changing demographics have rapidly split education in other communities in Mississippi. Some, such as Meridian, saw white support begin to erode as the district shifted from majority white to majority black. Today, Meridian has 86 percent black students and does not enjoy the broad community support it once did.
That serves as a warning but is not the lone example. The Clinton Public School District, which has 50 percent black students, was one of four districts to be named a Star district this year. That marks the best ranking in Mississippi’s accountability system, which is based upon student scores on state tests.
Tupelo has prided itself on good race relations and peaceful integration. Those claims were much easier to make in the 1970s, when the school district’s minority population was significantly smaller. Now, the city has another chance to prove itself.
“If there is a community in America that can do it, Tupelo can,” said former Tupelo Superintendent Mike Walters, now an education consultant in Jackson. “If they can get on board with what has to be done, they will get it turned.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com