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Potential Mississippi Delta Charter School Divides Communiti

Potential Mississippi Delta Charter School Divides Communities
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Students at Clarksdale Collegiate
Alexandra Watts

A second charter school could soon be opening in the Mississippi Delta. Charter schools are being seen as both a problem and a solution to the state's educational failures. MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports on how these schools are developing in rural areas.

Amanda Johnson, executive director of Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School, is greeting her students as they step out of the rain and into school.

The hallways of this school, which teaches kindergarten through second grade, are lined with college pennants and classrooms are named after colleges, which Johnson said encourages students as they learn.

“We want to make sure we are preparing each and every one for college graduation," she said. "So part of making sure that we have a college culture -- it’s in the atmosphere."

Clarksdale Collegiate is the state’s first rural charter school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, ten percent of charter schools in the United States are in rural areas.

Krystal Cormack is on the Charter School Authorizer Board and said charters are publicly funded in Mississippi. While they share similarities with traditional public schools, they have more independence.

“They have some freedoms and flexibilities to make different decisions that are different from what traditional public schools in the state would be able to do," Cormack explains.

There are currently five charter schools in Mississippi, but the board is prepared to approve more.

One of those potential charter schools is Leflore Legacy Academy proposed under the name Delta Academies. The school will serve middle schoolers in Leflore County.

Dr. Tamala Boyd Shaw is the executive director of the school and said like Clarksdale Collegiate, the school encourages college at a young age.

“I think it’s very important to get students on the trajectory of not only going to college, but graduating from college [and] to start as early as elementary, and if not elementary then middle school," she explains.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Mississippi ranks 49th in the U.S. in educational achievement. Schools in the Mississippi Delta rank even lower than the state’s average.

Linda Brownlow is a parent of two kids in Leflore County Public Schools. She's frustrated with how and what her kids are learning and says her fifth grade daughter’s grades concern her.

“Her last progress report she had 3 A’s, 3 B’s, but she can’t spell -- she can’t spell the world couch," Brownlow said. "And I don’t understand how a child that doesn’t understand is always on the principal’s list and making good grades.”

These concerns are why she supports charters.

“I’m hoping that the charter school will bring a better curriculum. I just want my children to be smart and know the information. I want them to know it and not just to hear it.”

For parents like Brownlow, charters offer an alternative model of education. However, some parents oppose charters like Kalanya Moore.

“Well, I’m very pleased with public education. I know right now it’s going through issues in regard to infrastructure," Moore said. "However, I think those that were for public education I think we will do whatever it takes to rebuild public education for our children.”

Because of this, Moore said she will not send her kids to a charter school. Her belief in the power of public education has also led her to run for the school board in November.

“The school districts are doing the best that they can with what they have. I think parental involvement is going to be key in order to assist our districts with educating our children.”

Charter schools are publicly funded on a per student basis. When students leave public schools, the funding leaves with them.

Ashley McKay is a parent and community organizer who lives in Tunica. She advocates for education across the Delta--- a region she says can not handle any more cuts.

“For every 100 students that leave the public school, you lose a million dollars from your budget," she explains. "And you already have schools in the Delta that are suffering the worst financially because they don’t have the tax base to raise money for education.”

McKay says when funding leaves the district, a student’s school day is changed. Fewer bus drivers mean longer bus routes and fewer teachers mean changes in classes.

But parents like Linda Brownlow believe charter schools offer students a choice from expensive private schools and struggling public schools.

“In the ‘90s when were going to school, we only had one school. You know, give us an option. Especially when we’re middle income [or] low income families who can’t afford private academies, and I think this charter school would be just a great investment for Leflore County.”

Clarksdale Collegiate’s school ranking has not been released, but other charter schools in Mississippi have received failing grades. Per Mississippi law, the charter schools must open in low performing districts.

But parents like Brownlow are still hopeful the proposed charter school Leflore Legacy Academy is approved.

“I’m praying that the charter school does get approved, but if it doesn’t get approved...I don’t know what to do because the high schools here, they aren’t teaching these kids to be college ready -- they’re not teaching them to be the next grade ready.”

In spite of low performance, people like Kalanya Moore remain optimistic about public education.

“Even here in the Mississippi Delta, from public education came superintendents of education, principals, teachers, instructional coaches. Your major leaders here in the community were educated in the public school system.”

The Charter School Authorizer Board will make a final decision regarding the new charter school on October 15th.

But what role, if any, charter schools should play in bettering education in The Mississippi Delta, is still up for debate.

Alexandra Watts is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the The GroundTruth Project.