Plight of Rural Schools Laid Bare in Dying Delta Town

With few teachers and little hope, Friars Point, Miss. illustrates the shortfalls of city-centric education reform

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Kyle Kurlick for TIME

Gloria Partee, a 4th-6th grade science teacher at Friars Point Elementary school, is the only teacher who still lives in Friar's Point, Miss., a town of 1,200 people.

Friars Point, Miss.

One promising young teacher decided she wanted to start a family outside of the Mississippi Delta. A second teacher left abruptly in the middle of the first semester with little explanation. A third took one spin through town before the school year started and never came back.

Schools across the country struggle to attract and keep good teachers. In this fading Mississippi Delta town of 1,200, a place with a storied history and a slender chance of economic revival, it’s an epic quest. Some residents have even allegedly set their own homes on fire, hoping the insurance money will enable them to start over elsewhere.

“Experienced teachers who don’t live here say they have very little reason to come,” said Pauline Rhodes, the superintendent of Coahoma County School District, which includes Friars Point Elementary, a school of about 150 students–down from 200 two years ago–and the town’s only elementary school. “If you are a really good applicant, you can select what district you go to.”

All of the school’s students come from families living below the poverty level; 97% are African-American. Although the school, which runs from kindergarten through sixth grade, has made some academic gains, in 2011-12 less than half of the students scored proficient on the state’s standardized tests, according to figures from the Mississippi Department of Education. In a typical year, the school has to replace at least a third of its teachers; some years, it’s as many as half, said Sherry Coleman, the school’s hard-working principal. She will have to fill at least five of 13 teaching positions for the 2013-14 school year, and possibly more if some teachers make last-minute decisions to leave over the summer.

There are more rural schools in America than city or suburban ones: During the 2011-12 school year, the U.S. Department of Education reported 33,000 schools in rural locations, 28,000 in suburbs, and 27,000 in cities. But the current approach to school reform in America, which centers on getting the best teacher in front of each classroom, and then holding them accountable for student results, often neglects rural schools’ unique needs. It is rooted in corporate principles of competition and change: If a teacher fails to get the job done, replace him; if a school fails to meet its bottom line (defined by test scores), close it.

As Friars Point shows, this strategy, designed largely with struggling urban school districts in mind, breaks down in impoverished small towns. These are places with little civic or economic infrastructure and a shortage of educated professionals. There’s often no qualified teacher available to take the place of a colleague who does not make the cut, no charter school operator poised to swoop in and take the reins of a “failing” school, and little left to keep the community alive if the school closes outright.

“Our community would just wither up and die,” said Gloria Partee, the only Friars Point Elementary teacher who still lives in town.

Every so often, a tourist makes the trek to Friars Point, nestled on fertile ground alongside the Mississippi River, hoping to see the hometown of country music star Conway Twitty and the store where Muddy Waters reportedly watched Robert Johnson perform his classic “Traveling Riverside Blues.” But for those visitors that foray into America’s musical and cultural history comes with a stark look at modern American poverty.

Most of Friars Point’s residents live in government-subsidized apartment buildings clustered around the school, trailers, or run-down shacks. Many blocks have lost homes to fires; townspeople and a local firefighter [SC1] report that some are self-inflicted “burnouts” when financially destitute residents burn their own homes for whatever insurance money they can get. In at least some cases, gang members have been known to burn down houses after residents depart as an initiation rite.

Once a thriving port town and the county seat, economic decline has left Friars Point with a lone elementary school, a few churches, a city hall, a post office, a small general store, a museum that opens only sporadically, a nightclub called Show T Boat where a man was shot to death in 2011, and a bank. The town no longer has a doctor or health clinic, a drug store, a sit-down restaurant, a recreational center, a library, or any businesses to speak of. Kids travel 15 miles to Clarksdale for junior and senior high school.

“Every year people try to get things for the town, but nothing ever comes,” said Carltonez Done, a 29-year-old native who has tried to organize youth sports programs in Friars Point. In at least two cases, departing businesses have donated buildings to Friars Point because they couldn’t find buyers. Those spaces remain vacant.

With all the town’s dire needs, Friars Point Elementary School has taken on outsized importance [SC2] in the community. It is the only public place where parents can be sure their children will be safe after school. It is also the only place where children can get regular health care through mobile vans from Clarksdale and a part-time school nurse. And with few large, habitable buildings left in town, it is often the only place where residents can gather to mourn their dead.

Friars Point’s difficulty attracting and keeping good teachers jeopardizes its future. Until a few years ago, the Coahoma County district was able to employ teachers who weren’t fully licensed, but excelled in the classroom. When the state said it would stop issuing one-year provisional licenses, the district’s options narrowed. According to Rhodes, fully licensed teachers who apply to Coahoma County from other Mississippi districts often have checkered resumes. “Ninety-percent of the ones with red flags end up to be marginal teachers,” she said.

Rhodes cites Friars Point’s reputation as a tough community as one disincentive for prospective teachers: In addition to an allegedly thriving drug trade, Friars Point has longstanding gang rivalries with nearby Jonestown. For such a small community, it has posted a high number of violent crimes in recent years. Police Chief Tracy Vance said there have been five murders in the last five years, giving the town a higher per-capita homicide rate than any large American city.

“It’s a beautiful place and it has a lot of history, but no one wants to be where they don’t feel safe,” said Sherry Citchens, a postal worker who moved with her eight daughters from Friars Point to Clarksdale after her husband died. “It was really a kind of scary place.”

Alan May, 55, moved to Clarksdale from Boston [SC3] last summer to work at Friars Point Elementary through Teach For[SC4]  America. (Unlike May, most of the organization’s recruits are fresh out of college.) He said teaching at the school reminds him of working on an island. Clarksdale is only 13 miles away, but many of the town’s low-income families lack cars.

After working in the community for eight months, May still had little idea where most of his students go after school or where their parents and grandparents find work. He plans to finish his two-year Teach For America commitment at the school, but says he might then look for a position in a bigger town where he can be closer to his aging mother, who lives in Atlanta. “In Friars Point, you’re just sort of out here,” he says.

Educators have wildly divergent views on how rural communities should address their staffing conundrum.

Sanford Johnson, a Mississippi native who taught in Coahoma County schools through Teach For America and now serves as deputy director of the advocacy group Mississippi First, says small towns need to launch a public relations campaign to attract talented educators. “I compare it a lot to college football recruiting,” he said. “You can’t just sit back and wait for talented folk to come in.”

Johnson said rural principals and superintendents should build relationships with colleges and teacher training programs and bring strong candidates in for visits. It’s just as important to sell the recruits on the community as the school during these visits, he said, noting that administrators could take young teachers to the Yazoo Pass, a popular coffee shop that opened recently in Clarksdale. Seeing a thriving hang-out shows they can have “somewhat of a social life,” he said. Johnson added that he, and others, also use the low cost of living as a draw.

But Craig Howley, an education professor at Ohio University who writes extensively on rural schooling, said Johnson’s strategy might work in wealthy or urban communities—places where, he said, there are “Whole Foods stores”—but not in isolated, impoverished ones. “I think it’s completely misguided although I understand the idealism,” Howley said. “If it’s successful it creates this mindset that, ‘the good we need comes from outside our community—we are just too dumb, too impoverished to do it on our own.’”

Howley said the only sustainable solution in the long term is for a town like Friars Point to develop its own talent by helping aides become teachers, for instance. He cites Native American tribal colleges, famous for their self-reliance, as a model for poor, rural communities.

Rhodes said the district has tried both strategies—recruiting widely and growing its own teachers. Neither has worked. In Friars Point, the district encouraged promising assistants to get certified as teachers, promising to reimburse tuition costs. But over the course of several years, only one followed through and managed to pass the Praxis exams required to complete the certification process.

Teach For America has supplied the school with several motivated, talented instructors. But most leave after their two-year commitment ends—if they make it that long. “By the time you start to see the benefits, they are gone,” said Rhodes.

Rhodes said the district has talked to representatives from a service that —for a fee—recruits teachers from foreign countries, even though the junior high school had to lay off one Indian teacher because of communication barriers.  [SC5] But as of May, Rhodes still had to fill 20 teaching positions across the district, most of them in Friars Point or at the countywide junior and senior high school. “We go to visit high-performing schools to see what we can duplicate,” she said. “But it’s hard to duplicate them because you can’t duplicate the people.”  [SC6]

While a vibrant, stable school might make the most difference in the long term, locals say there are smaller, simpler actions that could offer new hope to Friars Point children—like finding something for them to do after school.

A couple dozen children stay after school on weekdays for a tutoring and recreational program sponsored by Save the Children, in addition to the limited sports clubs. But most children, like 12-year-old Demarious Starr, have little to do in their free time but sit around or get into trouble. “I come home, ride my bike, and play video games,” he said.

Empty lots where houses or trailers once stood surround the house where Demarious lives with his siblings and his mother. Denise Williams tells her son to avoid the park where kids play pickup basketball games because of its reputation as a hangout spot for drug dealers and gang members. But it can be hard to stay away when there’s nothing else to do in town.

One spring evening, a dozen or so children, some as young as three and four, bounced balls and shot hoops while a small group of older men looked on from the sidelines. The park used to have a bathroom and water fountain until the town tore them down. Mold overtook them and no one had the money for cleaning and upkeep, said Done.

On this night, the kids appear oblivious to all that surrounds them, despite the customary shortage of basketballs. As the day fades, the children play on, determined to keep the game going for as long as they can.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.