Where you live matters when it comes to educational, career and socio-economic opportunities.
That was one major takeaway for the “Truthful Eyes: A Look at Mississippi Schools” study commissioned by the Children’s Defense Fund-Southern Regional Office. Even in Lowndes County, the households for students attending the Columbus Municipal or county public school district are statistically very different.
Pamela Shaw, a Vicksburg native and public policy analyst, presented the study’s findings to a group of community leaders at CMSD’s Brandon Central Services boardroom on Friday. It collected data from several sources — the U.S. Census Bureau, the Mississippi Department of Education and the National Center for Educational Statistics, among others — to analyze 13 public school districts in six areas in the state.
Shaw said the study focused on counties, such as Lowndes, where there is a high-performing school district (LCSD is rated as an A district by MDE) and a less successful one (CMSD is rated a D). Presenting the study to community leaders, she said, would spark discussion on what is causing the disparities and what can be done to address them.
“This isn’t our data,” Shaw said. “This is data (from other sources) we compiled to tell a story. … If you give people the information, people will respond to it. We want to give you the information and let you work out what you want to do with it.”
By the numbers
The “story” the numbers tell in Lowndes County point to poverty and race as key factors.
CMSD’s student body is 92.7 percent Black, compared to just 37.4 percent for LCSD. The median household income for students in each district is $70,417 for LCSD and $34,821 for the city schools. Nearly double the percentage of CMSD families (45.2 percent) live below the poverty line compared to LCSD (23.7 percent).
LCSD students outperform CMSD in all benchmark testing subjects — reading, math and science. It also bests the city district in graduation rate and college/career readiness metrics.
LCSD’s average ACT score is 18.3, compared to CMSD’s 14.8.
Other household statistics stand out as possible contributors to the performance disparity, Shaw said. A higher percentage of CMSD parents have attained education levels of less than high school, high school or some college compared to their county counterparts. However, 27.9 percent of LCSD parents have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 16.2 percent in CMSD.
Nearly two-thirds of LCSD parents own their home, compared to 28.4 percent of those in CMSD.
When looking at the workforce, though, 82.1 percent of CMSD parents and a near-even 81.7 percent of LCSD parents are employed. Still, more than half of CMSD parents receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, compared to just 24.9 percent in the county district.
“People (in CMSD) are working and are still below the poverty level, and there are others working who are above the poverty level but are getting SNAP,” Shaw said. “Working is not enough.”
The study also notes Lowndes County, as a whole, has lost 2.4 percent of its population since 2000 despite the vaunted regional industrial development efforts led by the Golden Triangle Development LINK that have brought in companies such as Steel Dynamics, Paccar and Airbus. Shaw asked leaders how that effective regional economic development approach could work better to “not leave behind its poorest communities.”
CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat, in her opening remarks, indicated that was her hope from the presentation as well.
“Through these numbers, we’ve seen that there’s a direct correlation between economic development and the success in the public education sector,” she told leaders gathered. “But we believe there’s also a direct correlation between public education and the success of our local economy. Essentially, we feed off each other.
“There’s a divide in Lowndes County, and it is imperative for us to discuss and unpack the reality. It is detrimental to the community, Mississippi and the nation as a whole to lack the awareness of why it is important to create pathways to living wages and home ownership to the disenfranchised,” she added. “Much like you, I didn’t choose my race or parents. Likewise, our children don’t choose their race nor do they choose to be born in poverty. If the endeavor to get out of poverty was easy, then why is it still plaguing our community and state generation after generation?”
Sam Allison, LCSD superintendent, also attended Friday’s presentation, and agreed that education is a key tool in attacking poverty.
“We have to be careful not to stereotype poverty,” he told The Dispatch. “We know there is a cycle of poverty. In the education world, we try to find ways to give hope.”
Reactions from other community leaders
LINK Chief Operations Officer Macaulay Whitaker, who attended, said she hopes the information presented Friday serves as a catalyst for connecting people, particularly those who live in the city, with real opportunities to move up the wage ladder.
Things like accelerated learning programs and focused career pathways in schools to public transportation to connect people with jobs and training are “all within our reach here,” she said.
“We have never had a problem thinking big and outside the box when it comes to economic development,” Whitaker told The Dispatch. “There’s no reason why we can’t apply that same big, out-of-the-box thinking to wealth disparity. … It’s about creating aspirational opportunities where everybody has the chance to make more, do more and learn more.”
Courtney Taylor, director for East Mississippi Community College’s Communiversity in Lowndes County — an industrial job training hub — proposed during Friday’s meeting an “assets-based” approach, specifically in schools. By focusing on what jobs are available locally and educating students on “what they do at International Paper” and other area industries, it could spark more interest for students wanting to enter those fields.
“If we leave here thinking there is something wrong with the schools, we’ve screwed up,” Taylor said.
District 5 Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks, who has served for more than three decades, expressed disappointment in what he’s seen as no collective effort by local leadership to support the city schools. Without that, and buy-in from district patrons, it will be difficult for CMSD’s performance to improve, he said.
“If we don’t break the cycle, we’re going to be here in 50 years, or somebody will, talking about the same thing,” Brooks said. “By all standards of expectations, I should be out digging a ditch somewhere. Luckily, I grew up with parents who valued education so they put that in (my) psyche. So that’s part of
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.