At the end of Dennis J. Dupree Sr.'s second year as superintendent in Clarksdale, Miss., he was up against a gargantuan challenge: All but two schools in the district were considered failing or at risk of failing under the state’s accountability system.
Those dismal marks came just as the veteran educator was in the early stages of overhauling all nine district schools in an attempt to drastically improve academic achievement in the community, an impoverished Mississippi Delta town that is still deeply divided by race.
But a more pressing matter for the veteran educator was tackling the education deprivation he saw.
“We had no innovative programs here,” said Mr. Dupree, who took the helm of the 3,100-student district in 2007. “Where we are located here in the Delta, our kids were just not being afforded anywhere near the opportunities and exposure to things that other districts take for granted.”
Music and art were virtually nonexistent, despite the Delta’s rich musical heritage. Foreign-language courses were limited to the high school. Preschool was available to very few children. And high school was falling short of its mission of getting students prepared for the rigors of higher education.
“My sense of urgency was around getting students and parents in this community excited about education again,” said Mr. Dupree, 55. “To do that, we needed to offer a whole lot more than what they had been getting.”
- Creating thematic magnet programs in every elementary school—mathematics and science, Spanish-language immersion, and visual and performing arts, among them;
- Giving parents citywide choice after decades under a desegregation order that failed to integrate the schools;
- Bringing rigor into the middle and high school with a new, college-preparatory curriculum; and
- Pursuing aggressively, in a state that always ranks at or near the bottom in funding public schools, millions of dollars from outside sources to pay for more prekindergarten classes and other initiatives, such as a special academy for 9th graders.
In December, Mr. Dupree scored his biggest victory yet on that front when the Clarksdale district won a $10 million federal Race to the Top award.
While none of those approaches by themselves is dramatically innovative, local officials are hoping the combination will be powerful for Clarksdale.
“My dream, and I hope I see it realized, is for our city to have an A-plus school system that’s diverse because it’s so good and so high quality that people don’t feel the need to place students in private schools,” said Mayor Bill Luckett, a longtime Clarksdale lawyer elected last summer. “I think Dennis Dupree is the leader who can get us there.”
Achieving diversity in Clarksdale’s public schools has been elusive.
A city of 18,000, Clarksdale sits in the top half of the Mississippi Delta, on the banks of the Sunflower River. It’s been home to some of the most productive cotton farms in the nation, but is probably best known as the birthplace and home for blues and jazz musicians.
In 2010, 79 percent of Clarksdale residents were African-American, while 19 percent were white, according to U.S. Census data. Until 1970, more than five years after a federal court first ordered Clarksdale’s schools to integrate, black and white children did not attend school together. When the junior high and high schools finally began fully integrating in the early 1970s, a mass exodus of white students had already begun, with many heading to a new, private school and some to existing church-affiliated schools.
This year, 98 percent of the students in the Clarksdale district are African-American, according to district data. Just 53 students are white. Ninety-six percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.
“White-flight academies popped up all over the state in those years after the desegregation orders came down, but especially here in the Delta,” said Mr. Luckett, who is white and graduated from a segregated Clarksdale High School in 1966.
Mr. Dupree, who is African-American and a native of Jackson, Miss., said his focus has been on providing the best educational opportunities he can to the students who are already in the school system.
“There has been a lot of distrust among the races in this community for a long time,” he said. “We are trying to bridge that gap through improving our schools and showing the entire community what we are capable of providing.”
Ratcheting Up Rigor
The major planks of Mr. Dupree’s improvement strategy have been the magnet programs in each elementary school, a redesign of graduation requirements, and increased rigor in all high school classes through the Cambridge International curriculum.
Putting his magnet model to work—which includes offering families districtwide choice among elementary schools—first required getting permission from the federal court overseeing the desegregation order. The court approved the plan.
In the three years since putting a Spanish-language-immersion magnet in Myrtle V. Hall Elementary School, a campus that was deemed failing when Mr. Dupree arrived, its achievement gains have been strong enough to earn a B, or high-performing grade, from the Mississippi education department.
Last fall, the district secured a separate three-year, $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will help establish and expand the magnet offerings in each of its five elementary schools.
“I think he took a risk when he pushed for the magnets because people in this community had very strong views on which elementary schools they wanted their child to attend,” said Josephine Rhymes, a retired educator who is now the director of the Tri-County Workforce Alliance and a member of a roundtable of residents and parents who meet monthly with the superintendent. “But parents are excited about it now. They see the potential.”
At the secondary level, Mr. Dupree and his team have homed in on making middle and high school more challenging and more engaging. To do that, they applied and were selected to be part of a cohort of Mississippi districts taking part in a national initiative to bolster high school rigor called Excellence for All, which is run by the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy. At the root of Clarkdale’s problem was that high school was too easy—most of its graduates needed remedial courses once they entered community college or four-year universities. Excellence for All draws on the high school programs in use by some top-performing countries.
But the transition to more rigorous high school work has not been without its bumps, Mr. Dupree said.
A major challenge has been convincing some parents that the tougher high school requirements are beneficial to students. That could get trickier if graduation rates dip next year when the first class of students who’ve had to meet tougher requirements will be seniors.
“For parents who were accustomed to seeing their child get A’s all the time, and now they might be seeing that same child bring home a C because the coursework is much more challenging, it’s taken a lot of educating of parents on our part,” he said.
Offering prekindergarten at every elementary school in Clarksdale is among Mr. Dupree’s signature achievements, especially notable in a state that, until last year, provided no aid to finance free preschool for low-income children. But when a new, $3 million state grant competition for preschool began last year, Clarksdale went after the money.
Along with its partner organizations, including Coahoma County, the district was one of 11 winning providers and won $328,000.
But while there have been early successes, Mr. Dupree sees much more work ahead.
Two of his most pressing concerns now are stemming the revolving door of teachers—Clarksdale is a Teach For America hotspot that struggles to keep young teachers from the program beyond their two-year commitment—and finding ways to raise revenue to renovate and replace the city’s aging school buildings.
But Mayor Luckett, who wants to stem Clarksdale’s steady population decline—a loss of 2,000 residents, or 10 percent of the population, between 2000 and 2010—sees the momentum in the city schools as a promising way to reverse that trend.
“We never had the types of things in our schools that he has brought in here, and people are taking notice,” he said.
“We had band, but now we’re seeing kids with upright basses, violins, and flutes, and the strength and vitality of our school system is ultimately going to be what keeps this community going.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week