Student Achievement In Their Own Words

This Superintendent Raised Grad Rates in His Rural, High Poverty District. Here’s How

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 06, 2023 | Updated: July 25, 2023 6 min read
Mario Willis
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Updated: This article has been updated to show that the New York Times first brought the superintendent’s success to light in an opinion piece.

Mario Willis knows a thing or two about defying odds. The 43-year-old recalls the days when he was an elementary school student in Mississippi’s Hollandale school district, working the cotton fields during summers. By 16, he was a father. He persevered, graduating from high school and accepting a baseball scholarship at Alcorn State University, where he earned a degree in accounting. Willis’ career has taken him from math teacher to superintendent of his childhoood school district, where he’s overseen a steady rise in the district’s graduation rate from 83 percent when he took over seven years ago to 97 percent last year—in spite of a districtwide poverty rate of 100 percent and a gradual, decadeslong erosion of the local business community and a subsequent decline in student enrollment.

New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof brought Willis’ success at raising graduation rates to light in an opinion article. In a conversation with Education Week, Willis shared strategies behind Hollandale’s improving graduation rate, the biggest challenges he faces as superintendent of a district beset by poverty, and why he extended a planned one-year superintendent stint in Hollandale into seven years—and counting. His words have been lightly edited for clarity and space.

Hollandale is a tough place. The population is very transient. It’s tough to keep community members—and students—here. The agricultural industry has always been present here. From the time I was 9 to about 13, I’d work in the cotton fields in the summer to help my mom with money. But with the advent of mechanical technologies, they’ve cut a lot of jobs from the industry—jobs that in the past were filled by people who sent their kids to our schools. These people left to find work in other areas.

Simmons Jr. Sr. High School, the sole school in Hollandale, Miss., serving students in grades 7 through 12.

The district is a lifeline for this town. We’re the largest employer. Our district building is in an old bank on the corner of Hollandale’s business district. There are four businesses in this downtown stretch; there used to be 20. In the early 2000’s, we had around 3,000 students. Now, we’re sitting around 600. We have an elementary school, K-5; a junior high, which is 6-8; a high school, 9-12; and an alternative school as well. All the schools are on a single campus, surrounded on all sides by cornfields.

Without a high school diploma, you cannot make a transition from here. My job is to prepare students to leave Hollandale. We’ve gone from a graduation rate of 83 percent when I got here in 2016 to 97.5 percent.

The mostly abandoned business district of Hollandale, Miss. The school district’s administrative office is one of the downtown street’s few remaining occupants, and is housed in a former bank.

We focus on early identification. All the 7th and 8th graders are assigned a mentor teacher as part of the transition between elementary school and high school. We knew if we didn’t provide that mentoring, these kids could get lost. When mentors build relationships with students through consistent meetings at school, the kids start to open up to them—about academic, behavioral, or other issues.

At the beginning of the year, we have goal setting. Every student has goals, though they [goals] aren’t all the same. It could be around academics, behavior, attendance. Within the mentorship relationship, that’s where the accountability for these goals takes place. For example, if the goal is to increase attendance, the mentor might say to the student: We know your attendance is 65 percent; we want you to go for 80 percent. Accountability begins and ends with the mentor.

A sign welcoming visitors to Hollandale, a rural city in Washington County, Miss., population of approximately 2,000.

Our small size makes this accountability possible. It is our “calling card.” It allows us to personalize learning. I know all the kids. They know me. If a kid is having a problem, the principal might call me directly. The principal is directly in tune with each kid; even the secretary is. If a kid is not in school by 8:30, the secretary calls the parent. If a kid fails a test, or they’re not paying attention, they’re immediately notified. We check in with the student and reiterate the importance of why these things need to be done and to offer additional assistance.

We don’t approach this as “I got you.” We set it up as: “We’re here to support you and we want you to succeed.” We talk about students’ goals in the context of eventually graduating from high school. We talk about how their immediate goals can help them get there. For some of these kids, no one in their family has ever graduated or gone to college.

Getting students’ parents to trust us can be a challenge—getting them to trust that we have good intentions for their kids. A lot of these parents have had bad experiences in school, with administrators or teachers that they feel have been out to attack or judge them as parents. For my staff, it’s been an all-out effort to do things transparently. We have personal meetings with parents—especially when their kids are doing well. When kids hit a target, we celebrate and we let the parents know we’re celebrating them.

We also try to work with families to overcome personal barriers. For example, sometimes parents weren’t getting kids to school on time. The kids would get to school late, miss first period. When we looked into it, it turned out the student was at home trying to get their baby sister ready for the day. If we know it’s a challenge for a high school student to get to school by first period, we might say, OK, we know this kid’s going to be late; let’s switch her to a later block so she wouldn’t miss first-period English class anymore. We’re flexible.

We do a good job of celebrating student growth. And we’re not just celebrating kids at the highest achievement levels. I make sure that, on a quarterly basis, we’re celebrating kids who are on honor roll, superintendent’s list, and those who have shown growth. These formal celebrations of recognition happen three times a year.

We also expose students to life beyond Hollandale. We believe that if you don’t see it, you can’t achieve it. We take kids on college visits. We take kids on trips. Right now, if you come to summer school, we’re going to Little Rock, Ark., to see the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. We’re doing a lesson to compare two rivers: the Arkansas River and the Mississippi River. We’re going to get you out of Hollandale to see what other things are in other places. We’re taking them to Atlanta, New Orleans, Alabama. We are exposing kids consistently. We’re taking them to Xavier University, to Jackson State University, “Old Miss.” We want you to see where you’re going.

We also bring people from the community in to talk to students. It’s our Future Focus initiative, to give students a true insight on this is what you can be and how you can be that person. I know a doctor over in Greenville; she talked to our students about the medical field. We’ve had an attorney talk to students about what that’s like. We’ve had truck drivers come to talk about the trucking industry. We have a nurse practitioner who mentors our students. My dad owns a construction company; he and my brother have talked to kids about this industry.

I’m constantly looking for grants to support our students so we can offer these additional experiences. In the past few years, we’ve secured almost $2.5 million in grant money; we’ve gotten grants to improve early literacy, security. We just received four new electric buses as part of a grant. Grants and partnerships have been an enormous help. We’re part of the 21st Century Program, the Deer Creek Promise Community, and others.

Getting to graduation isn’t the only challenge our students face. Getting them on grade level for reading is our biggest challenge. When kids come to us, most of them are behind. We have a pre-K program, and many students enter having never seen a book, their vocabulary is low. They’re already behind. Recruiting and retaining great teachers is another challenge. I have to be extremely creative in keeping teachers and leaders. You’ve got to have consistent administration. Consistent leadership matters.

I drive five hours a day, two and a half hours each way, to serve here as superintendent. It’s a true calling for me. I own the opportunity, and I feel like I owe these students the opportunity to have what I have. I’ve had a chance to lead a really good life. I come from nothing. I’m a young Black man. I have several degrees. I’m not supposed to be here. But if I wasn’t here doing this job, would they get someone else to do it like me, who’s committed to this town because I’m from here?

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