Beth Fulmer, a rookie teacher at Oakhurst Middle School, says poverty is a destabilizing force that her students struggle with. “I think a lot of a child’s success comes from their home lives,” she said.
Superintendent Dennis Dupree’s profile is rising as he tries to lift achievement levels in Clarksdale. Since Dupree was appointed in 2007, the district has won grants to improve its high school and one of its two middle schools. Clarksdale was one of the first three districts statewide to adopt a more rigorous high school curriculum. After piloting it with 40 students, Dupree plans to roll it out for all 9th graders next fall. He’s also volunteered Clarksdale as one of four districts to experiment with paying teachers based on performance, a pilot program meant to help Mississippi develop a merit pay system for all teachers. And Dupree is one of a group of educators who designed a new scoring system to grade schools statewide.
Dupree says his ultimate goal is to vault Clarksdale into the top rank of Mississippi districts.
“We’ve been seeing improvement, Dupree said. “We know we’ve been seeing it.”
Many say Dupree is at least chipping away at the schools’ failings.
“I feel like they are doing a fairly good job,” said Lamar Hicks, a Clarksdale High graduate and former assistant teacher who has a son in first grade. “They are doing exactly what they can do.”
There’s still a long way to go. The overall district and Clarksdale High School were exempted from Mississippi’s A-to-F school grading system last year because of the high school curriculum pilot. Results from elementary and middle schools were mixed. Two of six elementary school got B grades. But two elementary schools and both middle schools were graded F.
One big change coming in Mississippi is a requirement to hold back children in grades K-3 who aren’t reading at grade level. That’s modeled on laws adopted in Florida and 13 other states.
Clarksdale’s elementary schools are trying to improve student literacy. Valarie Davis, principal at Myrtle Hall IV Elementary, said the biggest reading challenge is lack of preparation at home, reflecting poverty and low parental education levels.
“The children don’t have the background,” Davis said. “Some of them have never been read to or read books at home.”
Preschool preparation for kindergarten could ease that problem. Mississippi has been the only state in the South and one of only 11 nationwide with no state-funded preschool program. But lawmakers approved a plan for school districts, Head Start centers and private child care operators to jointly provide voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds. Clarksdale is already using federal money to run three 20-student preschool classes, putting it among the one-third of Mississippi districts doing so even without state aid.
Clarksdale could also be an early target for a charter school under a new law easing creation of the alternative public schools. The Knowledge is Power Program, a national group, operates a charter school in nearby Helena-West Helena, Ark. The group has expressed interest in Clarksdale and many Mississippi leaders have said the school is a model. Some Clarksdale residents, including Luckett and his mayoral rival, Democratic state Rep. Chuck Espy, also support charter schools.
Dupree says the public school system is striving to be so attractive that parents will choose public schools even if a charter school opens.
“When there’s choice, we want to be the choice,” he said.