Tupelo High School will celebrate its centennial Friday night during its football game against division rival Southaven, a benchmark anniversary paying tribute to the determination of community leaders to provide more than minimal education in what was already a progressive community in the 1913-1914 academic year.
There’s no getting around the fact that the determination to have strong schools for black children, too, was not shared as a community passion until desegregation became a fact, a sea change accomplished without major incident and with major upgrades in physical facilities and curriculum enhancements systemwide.
It’s sobering to note that more than 50 years of Tupelo High School’s existence was as a segregated school, which the U.S. Supreme Court deemed with other such arrangements separate and not equal.
In some instances it is not hard to understand why Mississippi’s education history – separate and not equal – drained strength and resources for students because so much energy was spent keeping segregation in place.
Thank goodness that effort failed.
Yet in many Mississippi school districts, the onset of integration produced a new wave of hastily erected, segregated private schools for whites and resulted in the abandonment of the public schools by a large segment of the community, leading to further perpetuation of dual school systems. Those communities are among the lowest performing public school districts still because community support has been so fragmented and resources so diminished.
Decades have passed since integration and many of our schools, even in areas where there was not such wholesale abandonment, have not caught up, but progress is quantifiable. New methods, more rigorous testing and new options like appropriate charter schools offer encouragement that more students can be effectively reached and brought into higher performance.
Racial and economic achievement gaps remain a glaring reality in virtually every school district in Mississippi, even the best ones.
The U.S. Department of Education has noted Mississippi’s progress in incremental improvements in some of its lowest-performing school districts, and the state was one of many that recently received a “continuation grant” to further that work.
Mississippi’s legacy of segregated schools isn’t the only reason we’re behind the rest of the nation. Our entrenched poverty and social problems – detailed in a Daily Journal series last week – also contribute heavily.
But these can’t be excuses any longer for not reaching all Mississippi children in the public school system that for many remains their only real hope of escaping the conditions into which they were born.