ERROL CASTENS: When status quo fails, try change

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

I don’t know everything it would take to cure Mississippi’s perpetual educational underachievement.
I don’t know all the advantages and disadvantages that charter schools would create.
But I know what it looks like when the system doesn’t work.
Through the first six grades in my small-town schools, I did well enough that I’d convinced myself that I wanted to go to medical school.
In the fall of 1969, a court ordered that foot-dragging school districts all over Mississippi had to merge their previously separate schools for blacks and whites when they reopened after Christmas break.
Some communities – mostly those with a white majority – determined to make it work.
Canton wasn’t one of them.
Whites, the minority, overwhelmingly pulled out of the public schools and quickly opened a private one. Because my mother was a public school teacher and because our family supported the concept of public schools generally, my brother and I landed at different schools in the Canton district, where we were in the extreme minority.
Those schools were in meltdown.
Many teachers were qualified only on paper.
Facilities and furnishings reflected years of less-than-benign neglect.
Bullying of students and belligerence toward teachers and administrators were everyday occurrences.
My brother and I essentially lost two years before our parents realized ours was a quixotic quest and enrolled us at Canton Academy. (Mama remained in the public school system until forced by ill health, many years later, to resign.)
Those lost years were personally costly. Probably I would have missed out on medical school even with the preparation afforded by a superior school, but getting so far behind on math and science meant a lot of more realistic options were closed, too.
My brother and I at least had a chance to recover. Hundreds of our schoolmates were without that option.
The real tragedy is the countless students who had already spent all their school years in those dysfunctional campuses, and others like them, and those who would in generations to come.
Four decades later, Mississippi still has schools that offer only the barest of promise for students who want a real education, real opportunities, a real chance at success.
As previously acknowledged, I don’t know to what extent charter schools can counter the shortcomings of failing school districts. Some of them may prove as ineffective as the schools they replace.
But some, if the track records of other states is any indication, will be a vast improvement.
The broken educational systems in some communities condemn whole generations of their citizens to lifetimes of underachievement.
It seems not only shortsighted but utterly cruel not to try something – almost anything – that offers a chance of change.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at errol.castens@journalinc.com.