Delta Blues

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Webb, Miss.

The sheet of white butcher paper tacked to the wall in Reginald Barnes' office says it all.

In neat black marker, the superintendent of Mississippi's West Tallahatchie school district has listed the names and status of the new faces who taught in his schools this year. Some are retired teachers coaxed back into service. Others are long-term substitutes. Still others are brand-new teachers getting their feet wet for a few years. What is certain is that many won't stay.

The 1,500-student district employed 85 teachers this school year, 38 of whom were new to West Tallahatchie. Of those, Barnes estimates that half will be gone by August. Ahead of him stretches a long, hot summer of recruiting, with little to lure teachers to the rural schools but his own energy, commitment, and charm.

West Tallahatchie, a struggling district in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, doesn't have much to offer. There are no restaurants to speak of, no entertainment, and nowhere for teachers to live. Many drive 30 or 40 minutes through the cotton fields along Highway 61--the famous route so many blues singers took out of the Delta--to teach here.

When they arrive, teachers find an impoverished community where illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency are facts of life. For their troubles, they earn $21,420 to start and, depending on further coursework, top out at $38,340 after 25 years and a master's degree.

"When you see for yourself what's here--and more importantly, what's not here--you'll see why nobody wants to come here and work," Barnes says. "We are 50 miles from the Mississippi River, and we have kids here who have never seen it--that famous river. These kids are living in Third World conditions."

The entire Delta region suffers from constant faculty turnover and a lack of qualified applicants.

Sad as the situation is in West Tallahatchie, its woes aren't unusual. The entire Delta region suffers from constant faculty turnover and a lack of qualified applicants so severe that last year, the state legislature enacted the Mississippi Critical Teacher Shortage Act. The measure provides scholarships, grants, home loans, and moving expenses for teachers willing to work in the Delta and other designated shortage areas.

The Delta, in the northwest part of the state along the Mississippi River, is actually an alluvial plain of fertile farmland stretching 220 miles from Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss. Once planted mostly in "King Cotton," the land now also yields soybeans and corn. The Delta was home to hundreds of thousands of black sharecroppers, many of whom left for Chicago, Detroit, and other industrial cities after World War I. Today, it remains one of the poorest regions in the nation. The average household income in the West Tallahatchie district, centered in the tiny town of Webb, is $5,800 a year.

Lawmakers were galvanized to act by reports written by the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, a Jackson-based coalition of business, government, and education leaders. The coalition turned its attention to the state's teacher force in 1996, when a blue-ribbon national panel stressed that teachers were the key to school improvement.

Mississippi faces enormous hurdles, the state panel found, in attracting, supporting, and keeping well-qualified teachers and principals. Among the problems are low salaries, an aging workforce, an undersupply of new teachers, and high levels of attrition among teachers, who complain of poor student discipline and a lack of respect. It doesn't help that Mississippi students perennially score at or near the bottom in national test rankings.

In addressing the crisis, Mississippi has to compete with neighboring states that pay more and are also aggressively tackling teacher-quality issues. At a time when the United States is projected to need more than 2 million new teachers in the next decade, this state is up against the wall.

To fill classrooms, policymakers are now modifying practices that have served as barriers to hiring teachers. Richard Thompson, the state superintendent of public instruction, knows the changes leave Mississippi open to charges of lowering standards.

"It's one of the toughest things in the world," he says during a recent tour of West Tallahatchie's schools. "I know that a qualified, certified teacher in every classroom is the way we need to go. In reality, I've got 420 vacancies."

That's the number of teachers, out of a workforce of 29,000, that Mississippi schools were short when they opened last fall. Besides the Delta, state officials say, Jackson, the state capital, is also particularly plagued by teacher shortages.

The housing situation here in the West Tallahatchie district is dire enough that the Critical Teacher Shortage Act includes a $200,000 low-interest loan to a developer for construction of rental apartments for teachers. The apartments, the first of their kind in the state, are to be built this summer on land behind West Tallahatchie High School.

Superintendent Barnes, a well-known agitator for change in the Delta, doesn't spend much time at the district-owned house provided for him. The brick, ranch-style home with peeling trim is adjacent to the high school, next door to a similar dwelling for the high school principal. Nearby is a baseball field that students built themselves.

Superintendent Reginald Barnes has to work overtime to lure teachers to his district, where "kids are living in Third World conditions."

The energetic superintendent is as likely to be found in bluejeans on a riding mower, cutting the grass around the tidy administration building, as in a shirt and tie. His domain includes the high school and two elementary schools, which will be consolidated this summer when tiny Black Bayou Elementary is closed.

Barnes' determination to improve children's lives has paid off during his five years here. In February, after nine years on academic probation, the district celebrated earning a score of 2 under Mississippi's accountability system. The climb from a 1, the lowest score on a 5-point scale, was a major achievement.

Still, the district remains under state oversight and must follow a corrective-action plan.

During Barnes' tenure, the graduation rate has shot up to 75 percent from 43 percent. But only about 10 percent of graduates go on to college, and many of those students are home by Christmas, the superintendent says.

When they arrive, teachers find an impoverished community where illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency are facts of life.

Instead of being able to count on a qualified workforce, Barnes is forced to patch together a makeshift lineup. He drafts retired teachers into service, although they can only work part time without jeopardizing their state pensions. College graduates teach at the high school in exchange for a free master's degree, courtesy of the state's new teacher-fellowship program. Long-term substitutes handle other classes.

And sometimes, teachers arrive from states with tight job markets, looking for a chance to get experience--and perhaps do a little good--before moving closer to home.

"This critical teacher shortage is more of a problem than people can imagine," says Barnes, who is forced to recruit year round. "It scares me to death. You cannot stop any academic woes without a certified teacher in the classroom. Where does it stop?"

In December, he lost six teachers, forcing him to spend his entire Christmas break looking for replacements. A few months later, a 2nd grade teacher quit in her first year and went back home to Tennessee, leaving him with a class of 26 children being supervised by a teaching assistant.

Eventually, Barnes found Sandra Conway, who is working under an emergency license, to finish out the school year. A licensed computer teacher who will move to the high school in the fall, Conway had never before taught elementary school.

"I just started calling schools in the Yellow Pages," she says of the job search that landed her at West Tallahatchie's R.H. Bearden Elementary School. Barnes "was like, 'Get down here in the morning.'"

In December, Barnes lost six teachers, forcing him to spend his entire Christmas break looking for replacements.

Conway, the mother of a teenage daughter, lives in Greenwood, a city of 30,000 some 30 miles from the school. "I couldn't stand to live here," she says, lamenting the lack of housing and restaurants in the local community. "It's horrible."

Barnes haunts job fairs, of course, which is where he snapped up Levi Shavers Jr., a former high school teacher in England, Ark.

Shavers, 38, had never set foot in Mississippi, and he knew that the Delta was a world unto itself. Still, he was willing to give it a try. Each weekday, he rises before sunup to drive 30 miles from his apartment in Clarksdale to Bearden Elementary, where he serves as assistant principal.

"At this school, we have some of the finest students," says Shavers, one of 19 staff members who are new this year. "I was very delighted when we got off academic probation."

In addition to Shavers, Bearden has a new principal. Willena White is a veteran, though, of Delta schools and knows how hard it can be for new teachers to adjust.

Take Molly Barton, a 1998 graduate of the Mississippi University for Women. Before she arrived this year, the school had no art teacher. White says she plans to hang on to Barton "like lifeblood," but knows the young teacher isn't accustomed to the culture quite yet.

For one thing, Barton was shocked to see inmates in green- and white-striped pants mowing the lawn and making repairs around the school, which is sorely in need of renovation. The inmates, overseen by the district's maintenance supervisor, are an irresistible source of free labor.

"I didn't expect to work with prisoners," says Barton, a native of Louisville in eastern Mississippi. "It's not like this on the other side of the state."

Still, it was the best job she could find near Cleveland, Miss., where her husband is a physical education teacher.

When asked about the use of prisoners, Superintendent Barnes says he would rather not have such influences around children. But he points out that the inmates are nonviolent offenders who live at satellite sites of the state penitentiary and work for government agencies as part of their transition from prison life.

Paddles also are ubiquitous here. Teachers watch over recess with paddles in hand. White has one on her desk, its handle thickly wrapped with tape.

"If you've got a community with a tradition of paddling, and if you don't paddle, they think they've done nothing wrong," the elementary school principal says of her students. "We had a new teacher from out of state who came to the Delta, and she cried and said, 'I cannot do it.' I said, 'Then they will paddle you.' You have to do it to survive."

Discipline, in fact, appears to take up a large share of teachers' time.

Herma S. Floyd, who retired in 1992 after 31 years of teaching, complains that "the children are out of control." Floyd stepped in to teach social studies, mathematics, and Mississippi history at Bearden in January. Her students had another retired teacher last fall.

"They haven't had a teacher for this class for the whole year," Floyd says. "If you could keep one for the whole year, it would make it better."

The "bat cave" of cardboard and beanbag chairs in Lori Kolbicka's 2nd grade classroom stands out at Bearden as a bright, child-friendly spot where young readers can curl up with good books.

Kolbicka and her husband, a 5th grade science teacher at the school, loaded up a U-Haul last year and drove from Pennsylvania to Webb to teach. They graduated two years ago from King's College in Wilkes-Barre and sent out hundreds of applications, only to meet with rejection in that teacher-saturated state.

"Where we were, everyone put their engagement picture in the paper," Kolbicka says. "People with education degrees were hostesses at Friendly's or working at Wal-Mart. People would sub 10 years with no permanent job."

Determined not to meet the same fate, Kolbicka decided to make an adventure of her first years of teaching. The deciding factor was Barnes, who convinced the young teachers that they could make a difference and hone their talents in the Delta.

The couple beat 10 other interested renters to land a house in Webb. They're planning to stay at least another year before seeking jobs closer to home.

‘Because the children are so needy and the turnover is so high, if you are a good teacher, you can be such a part of the school.’

Lori Kolbicka,
2nd grade teacher,
Bearden Elementary School

"Because the children are so needy and the turnover is so high, if you are a good teacher, you can be such a part of the school," Kolbicka says of her time here. "We've had experiences being on committees and going to different training that we never would have had."

One thing Kolbicka would like to change is the play area behind the school. Recess is a dusty scuffle out on the grass--except when rain floods the field. There is no blacktop painted with hopscotch squares, no swings, no basketball hoops, no jungle gyms. Teachers have started raising money to buy equipment, but are daunted by the four-figure price tag.

Her colleague, Margaret Turner, supervises recess with a paddle she calls her warning stick. Turner, whose husband manages a farm in nearby Mentor City, considers herself lucky.

"The only teachers we can keep are the ones who are settled and live in this area," she says. "Teachers from out of the state don't stay."

The turnover makes Rosemary Wolfe's job as a lead teacher all the more important. Wolfe, a 21-year veteran who came to work at Bearden Elementary this year from a neighboring district, observes classes, helps teachers, and provides professional development.

"When you put things in place and then teachers leave," she says, "that's just like starting all over again."

One staff member who won't be back next year is Chris Powell, 26, who has been at Bearden just one year. Powell, an English teacher from Jackson, is heading for law school, where he won't have to contend with the tree frogs, mice, and wasps that invade his classroom here.

To him, the solution to Mississippi's teacher blues is simple: Raise their pay.

"It really pisses me off that these folks around here talk about accountability, and that these kids aren't getting educated because we're not holding the teachers accountable," Powell says as his students plow through J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. "These same folks believe so strongly in basic economics and supply and demand. Yet they can't see that if you raise the pay, you will get more than enough teachers--enough so you can fire folks you don't want."

If retired teachers provide the glue that holds Bearden Elementary School together, then West Tallahatchie High School's equivalent is its teacher-fellows. The college graduates, teaching in the fields in which they majored, are earning free master's degrees in exchange for working in the Delta.

Erica Brusselars, 22, a math major from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, found herself counting the remaining weeks of school. Still, teaching is much easier than it was in the fall, she says, because most of the real troublemakers have been expelled or dropped out.

Brusselars was game to live in rural Mississippi, especially if she could get experience and earn a master's in curriculum and instruction from the University of Mississippi. She shares a quaint white farmhouse, owned by a local judge, with Lori Trussell, 24, a Vicksburg native who earned a communications degree from Tulane University.

The young women lived in Clarksdale--"that just killed us," Brusselars says--before lucking into their rental arrangement in February.

On weekends, when they're not taking classes, the two keep themselves busy baking, gardening, and reading. They laugh as they argue about whether Brusselars recently "trimmed" the shrubs or mowed them down.

Luck also befell a social studies teacher at the high school, a former police officer. She was living in a trailer in Philipp before Lenagene Waldrup, West Tallahatchie's tech-prep coordinator, offered to rent the teacher her deceased mother's house. "I need to tell Reggie [Barnes] I'm doing my part to keep teachers," Waldrup quips.

For Jay Gee, 31, accommodations aren't an issue. He lives with his family, who run Gee's grocery store on the main road. Gee, who went to college at 16 and has a doctorate in biochemistry, says he returned home to teach for personal reasons.

Superintendent Barnes is thrilled to have him. Gee, who teaches French 1 and Spanish 1, is the high school's only foreign-language teacher. West Tallahatchie High offers some 46 courses, including all those required for college entrance, but it's a paltry menu compared with better-off districts, whose high schools boast as many as 170 courses.

"It's been kind of tough struggling with discipline and dealing with adolescents, but I'm picking that up," Gee says.

He sticks to a basic routine in class of vocabulary and grammar drills. The Spanish textbook is out of print, and there aren't enough French books for students to take them home. Nor is there a lab where the Delta residents could hear a native speaker pronounce the languages.

"My Spanish was pretty rusty," admits Gee, who has traveled extensively. "But I decided to try it."

Short of encouraging students here to consider careers in teaching--an effort that is just beginning--it isn't clear how West Tallahatchie and Mississippi's other isolated, rural districts will attract and keep qualified teachers.

The Mississippi Teacher Center does its share by running a World Wide Web site listing vacancies throughout the state and helping to match applicants with districts. The teacher center, a division of the state education department, also administers the programs created by the teacher-shortage act.

Currently, 50 teachers from 27 districts are pursuing master's degrees in exchange for teaching in a shortage area for three years. Another 278 students have received college scholarships in exchange for a commitment to teach where they're needed most, also for three years.

In addition, the legislature this spring approved an 8 percent raise for teachers, part of an effort to make salaries competitive with those of other Southern states. The state already pays teachers who become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards an extra $6,000 a year--the biggest such incentive offered by any state.

But the state still faces an "enormous challenge," says William Lewis, the executive director of the Public Education Forum of Mississippi.

Through a series of reports, the forum is "trying to build that awareness of the critical state we've gotten ourselves into," he says. "The overriding concern, over and over again, was the severe deficit that we have in our compensation for teachers and administrators."

The average teacher salary in Mississippi is $27,720 a year, the forum found, compared with $32,947 for the Southeast and $38,611 nationally.

Mississippi historically has invested little in teachers and is now taking "remarkable" steps to turn around that neglect, says Barnett Barry, the director of the Southeast office of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. That panel's report three years ago underscored the crucial importance of teacher quality.

"You don't pull yourself out of a deep hole in one fell swoop," Barry says. "The state is real close to building a nice set of strategies that can work over the long haul."

But more needs to be done, he says, including providing intensive training for teachers working outside their fields of licensure and raising the pay of teachers willing to work in the Delta.

Meanwhile, Mississippi policymakers are taking a hard look at rules that they believe contribute to the shortage.

State law prohibited districts from paying uncertified teachers with state money, which forced them to dip into scarce local funds. During the 1995-96 school year, Barnes spent $111,000 of local money--or one-fifth of his budget--on long-term substitutes. The West Tallahatchie district has such a meager tax base that it can offer teachers only a $275 annual supplement above the state's base pay. Wealthier Mississippi districts add up to $5,000 more.

At the same time, the state's accountability rules require districts to spend a specified amount on their libraries and other facilities.

"It's like slapping you on the wrist and then slapping you in the face," Barnes says.

Thompson, the state superintendent, says the policy forbidding payment of uncertified teachers with state money forced districts to turn away trained teachers who had failed to pass the state licensing test by just a few points. Now, with the approval of the state board of education, districts in shortage areas may pay unlicensed teachers with state money, provided the teachers have college degrees.

Similarly, Mississippi had required its teacher colleges to ensure that 90 percent of their students passed the licensing test--one of the highest standards in the country. Colleges were postponing student teaching to get people over that hurdle, Thompson says, which wasn't sound practice. Now, he says, the standard is being "adjusted" to 80 percent.

Finally, the education department is asking the legislature to consider allowing retired teachers to work a full year without losing pension benefits. Also under way is a pilot teacher-mentoring program; the mentoring program already on the books is unsubsidized.

In a state with hundreds of vacancies, 560 long-term substitutes, and 700 emergency licenses, the changes seem to make sense.

"We don't think we're lowering the standards," Thompson says. "We're dealing with the reality of the situation."

For his part, Barnes calls the state's efforts to recruit more teachers "no guarantee."

"I'm wanting to be optimistic," the West Tallahatchie superintendent says, "but I am forced to look at things differently than districts that don't have a problem recruiting certified people."

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