HAZLEHURST, Miss.—When the state took control of the Hazlehurst City school district in 2008, the small rural district was in chaos and suffering from abysmal academic performance. Student folders had gaps where grades and attendance records should have been. District personnel reports listed one employee as holding five different positions, including assistant superintendent, transportation director and athletic director. The state received complaints of nepotism, favoritism and harassment.
Nearly six years later, the district is one of three in Mississippi returning to local control. Hazlehurst has shown some academic improvements.
Last year, the pass rate on the high school algebra exam was 77 percent, up from only 14 percent before the takeover. More than 75 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or advanced on the math exam, a big change from just 9 percent in 2008.
But some scores still linger far below the state average. Only about 21 percent of fifth-grade students scored proficient or advanced on math in 2013. A third of sixth graders passed the reading exam.
A 2011 judicial brief described out-of-control classrooms, incidents where students engaged in sexual activity on campus, and student violence toward teachers.
Hazlehurst's inconsistent and often lackluster results throw a spotlight on how difficult it is for a state to take over far-flung school districts. They also raise the question of whether it is even worthwhile, particularly in rural districts where resources are limited and plans are ill defined.
In Mississippi, and nationwide, the results clearly are mixed over whether takeovers work.
(For interactive graphics related to this story, visit The Hechinger Report.)
Some states, such as Tennessee and Louisiana, are putting failing schools in a separate statewide district and handing them over to charter-school operators or outside organizations.
Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that focuses on education-reform research, said this gives schools more autonomy to make drastic changes. "There are states now that are saying, 'Hey, maybe the fundamental problem is the district structure itself,'" Smarick said.
A 2004 report from the Education Commission of the States found that, nationally, takeovers tend to improve administrative and financial practices but have less of an effect on classroom instruction. Academic performance when a district is under state control is usually mixed, the report concluded, with increases in some areas, and decreases in others. "The bottom line is that state takeovers, for the most part, have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance, as is necessary in many of the school districts that are taken over," the report concluded.
A decade later, Mississippi is one of many states struggling to understand when the state should intervene—and when to pull out.
For years, Mississippi has ranked below all other states in standardized test performance. Last year, only 26 percent of fourth-grade students were proficient in math, compared to the national average of 41 percent. In the 2010-11 school year, only 63 percent of Mississippi's students graduated from high school in four years, compared to 78 percent nationwide.
The state has tried to improve its lowest-performing districts, but in the past six years Mississippi has underfunded schools by more than $1 billion and has no extra money set aside to help conservatorship districts.
Still, since 1996 Mississippi has taken over 15 districts for various reasons, including financial mismanagement and poor academic performance, and it is set to take over more schools this year.
Consider the mixed results:
Two districts that the state took over in the 1990s and then released back to local control—North Panola and Oktibbeha County—are once again under state control for poor academic performance.
Other districts have been returned to local control after making little academic progress. The Okolona Separate School District, about 20 miles south of Tupelo, was under state control from 2010 until 2012 after years of low test scores and numerous accreditation violations. The district was returned to local control in 2012, even though only 14 percent of the district's third graders scored proficient or advanced on the state reading test that year.
In a 2012 press release, Tom Burnham, who was then state superintendent, said "This is why we have this tool in place, to improve the school district and return it back to the community in better shape." The release cited Okolona's progress: the district met all but three state accreditation standards and every senior at Okolona High School was set to graduate that month.
But one year after the state left, 73 percent of students in the district graduated, and less than 50 percent of high school students passed the state English exam. Only 15 percent of fourth graders scored proficient on the state math test.
"It's really hard to find many examples of state takeovers that have led to dramatically different performance," said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.
Five of the districts currently under state control in Mississippi have had several years to show academic growth, but that growth has been relatively varied, and in some districts, mediocre. A Hechinger Report analysis of school data found that all of the districts have seen at least slight improvement in their overall score from the state on a 300-point scale, which is based on student test scores. But in several districts those gains have been erratic year to year.
Some of the five districts have struggled to show steady growth in individual grade levels or subject areas, and have seen test scores rise one year, only to drop the next year. In third-grade math, all five districts showed overall gains since their takeovers. But only two districts saw growth each year in high school algebra pass rates. All five districts showed year-to-year ups and downs in eighth-grade language arts scores from the time the state took over until 2013. Two additional districts that were taken over in 2012 registered a decline in third-grade math scores right after the state took over.
These mixed results come at a time when the state may expand takeovers. A 2010 Mississippi law permits the state to take over individual schools rather than entire districts. At least 50 schools will be eligible to be taken over this fall due to years of low academic performance
Across the country, more than half of all states have laws that allow the state to take over failing districts. Several states have struggled to improve failing districts even after decades of control.
In New Jersey, the Newark school district has been under state control since 1995 but still registers low test scores and graduation rates.
The problem, Petrilli said, is that widespread change is often the key factor leading to improvement. "What typically will happen is the state will simply replace the superintendent with someone they choose," he said. "If nothing else changes—the central office stays the same, all of the systems, curriculum, all of those reasons that the system is failing in the first place—... then (the superintendent) doesn't necessarily make the radical changes you would need to see for radically different performance."
It's unclear what a successful takeover would look like in Mississippi.
In some states, like Tennessee, clear growth goals and a timeline are set for schools or districts that are taken over. Tennessee's Achievement School District includes the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, all of which have the goal of moving to the top 25 percent within five years. Since the achievement district's inception in 2012, the state has closely monitored its progress. In the 2012-13 school year, the district's schools posted drops in reading scores, and modest growth in math and science.
In Mississippi, the state identifies administrative and financial areas to fix through annual audits of school accreditation standards, which look at such measures as finances and school board practices. Districts can also be taken over if they are rated as failing by the state for two consecutive school years or if there is a pattern of "poor student performance." When a district is taken over, the audit becomes the district's "action plan," which provides steps the district must take to fix accreditation violations.
But the state does not set academic criteria for the district's exit from a takeover, or a timeline for improvement. "Initially, (the goal) is to try to get out of the failing status," said Larry Drawdy, Mississippi's deputy state superintendent of school improvement, oversight, recovery and conservatorship.
The takeover process in Mississippi is quick. After the governor declares a state of emergency in a district due to finances, poor academic performance, or concerns for student safety, the superintendent and the school board are immediately removed.
The state usually hires an experienced superintendent as a conservator, and takes control of the district. The conservator can make immediate changes, which can include firing teachers and hiring new business managers or administrators. The district pays for the position, unless, Drawdy said, the district is in debt and can't afford it. In those cases, the state will front the bill.
Some districts, like Tate County, have had the same conservator for the entirety of the takeover. In other districts, like Hazlehurst and North Panola, several conservators have cycled through.
After a district returns to local control and a new superintendent is hired, conservators may move to another takeover district.
Drawdy said once districts show they have fixed violations in the annual audit, they're cleared by the Mississippi Department of Education and return to local control. There is no limit on how long a takeover can last. Some Mississippi districts have returned to local control after one year while others remain under state control after six years.
In a July 2013 press release, Drawdy, then the interim state superintendent, defended the efficacy of the state takeovers of Hazlehurst, Tate County, and North Panola.
"Overall, conservators have done a good job of getting these districts back on track," Drawdy said.
The state education department denied a public-records request by The Hechinger Report for the most recent accreditation audits of Hazlehurst, Tate County and North Panola—all districts that are exiting takeovers this year. A state official wrote that the Mississippi Department of Education "does not have any documents responsive to your request," (The state did provide earlier audits.)
Based on publicly available records, Tate County appears to be one of the most academically successful takeovers in Mississippi. The district's overall state score has grown 34 points, the second-greatest improvement after North Panola. Last year, about 66 percent of Tate's sixth-grade students were proficient or advanced on the end-of-grade reading exam, a 22 percentage point increase since the beginning of the takeover four years earlier. The percentage of students passing the state algebra exam has increased dramatically, to nearly 90 percent last year from 45 percent in 2009.
Nevertheless, critics say the state has stayed in Tate County for too long without clear exit goals. "I'm somewhat frustrated that it's taken almost six years," said state Senator Steve Hale, D-Senatobia, where Tate County and North Panola are located. This year, Hale proposed legislation for the second year in a row that would have set criteria for academic growth, and a cap on the amount of time a conservator could stay in the district. "There needs to be a structure there," Hale said. "There should be a better understanding of what's taking place, what it's going to take to correct it, and how long it's going to take." But his legislation died after it was not brought up for discussion before the deadline to move bills out of committee this session.
Larry Drawdy says a timeline would be difficult since the state often takes over a district and then finds the situation is much more complicated than it first appeared. "I would hate to put any time length on a part of conservatorship, because some districts we might be able to move into and we can correct the problem within maybe a two-year process, another one might take five years" Drawdy said. "Conservatorships are similar, but they're all different. Each one of them has their own peculiarities."
Help for Hazlehurst
The experience of the Hazlehurst School District illustrates both the benefits and problems brought on by a state takeover.
Few people deny that the district needed help when the state intervened in 2008. Hazlehurst serves more than 1,500 students about 35 miles south of Jackson, and has posted poor scores on state tests for years. Ninety percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
In recent years, dozens of the district's vacant teaching positions have been filled by first-year teachers from Teach For America, who tend to leave after two years.
In the spring of 2008, a state audit found the district was in full compliance with only two of 37 accreditation standards. Members of the community members and the staff told state officials that they "perceive that a system of nepotism and favoritism exists." School board members randomly appeared at schools, in what district employees called attempts to "harass and/or intimidate."
The administration was unstable as well. According to a 2011 judicial brief, there were six different principals at Hazlehurst Middle School during the 2008-09 school year.
In the years after the state took control, the district has continued to struggle with turnover. In the past six years, the district has had at least five different conservators.
Conservatorship is the "loneliest job in the state of Mississippi," said Larry Drawdy—and one of the hardest positions to fill. "Basically, [conservators] have to pick up and move to a community that they're not familiar with, where they don't know anybody there," Drawdy added. "They don't know who they can trust."
But conservators also bring an outside perspective and the singular authority to make tough decisions. They can replace office staff, dismiss teachers, and make swift changes. "They are the total voice for the school district," Drawdy said. "It's really not the checks and balances you would have with the superintendent and the board."
In Hazlehurst, where the school board was in violation of several accreditation standards—including failure to provide notice of public meetings and to take minutes during the meetings—the state takeover allowed conservators to make immediate changes.
To address the academic gaps, a more intractable problem, the district added a block of time during the school day to work with struggling students on basic skills, and created an after-school program open to all students. Consultants were brought in to help train teachers on using data and creating strong lesson plans.
Henry Dorsey, the current conservator of Hazlehurst, says the goal for the district was "to move our kids from proficient to advanced, and to move those that were basic to proficient." Clearly, the performance data has been mixed.
Andy Smarick said sometimes a state doesn't have the staff or capacity to make dramatic progress in a district, but takes control because of a "sense of moral obligation" after a district hits "rock bottom."
But then, Smarick said, officials often don't know what to do with the district. "(States) realize 'we were not set up to take over a district, much less run schools from the capital when the district might be 50, 200, 300 miles away,'" Smarick said.
Despite some persistently low scores in Hazlehurst, Drawdy, the deputy state superintendent, said "there's a point where we have to decide that it's time now to give it back." Districts in conservatorship find it difficult to attract teachers and principals, he said.
Henry Dorsey, the current superintendent of Hazlehurst, said improved test scores have made it easier to attract teachers.
And in some districts, Larry Drawdy said the state can only do so much. "We can significantly go in and change and bring that school district up to what it needs to be accreditation wise, financial wise, and in many cases test score wise...because we can control the school," Drawdy said. "We cannot control the community because we have not changed the culture in the community."
Lessons from Tate County
Although the results of state takeovers have been relatively mediocre overall, Tate County is a rare example of academic success.
When the state took control of the Tate County School District in 2009, the rural district that serves about 3,000 students was more than $1 million in debt. Supplies and technology were grossly insufficient: A 2009 audit of the district found that computers for a vocational program were running Windows 3.0, a system released in 1990.
The district, just 30 miles south of the Tennessee border, was also struggling academically. In 2009, only 40 percent of third-grade students scored proficient or advanced on the end-of-grade English language arts exam. Only 45 percent of students passed the state algebra exam. Teachers were "just sort of floating around on their own little island," said James Malone, a former high school principal and district superintendent, who was appointed by the state as the district's conservator in 2009.
When he took control, Malone rolled out a district-wide curriculum so teachers at each school were teaching the same material. Teachers began to use frequent assessments to track student progress, and consultants were brought in to observe and coach teachers.
At the same time, Malone had to make cuts to whittle down the $1 million deficit.
In the 2009-10 school year, Tate County cut all of its assistant teachers, and most new teachers. He was able to hire back some staff members, but had to increase class sizes to do so. "When you cut personnel and you're still trying to improve test scores ... that's difficult," Malone said.
On a recent morning at Tate's Strayhorn High School in the small rural town of Sarah, Miss., veteran math teacher Molly Berry was teaching parabolas to 10 students who were riveted by a picture of a Ferrari sports car displayed on a screen in the front of the room.
"Where's the parabola in this picture?" Berry asked.
"The hood!" one student offered.
"The steering wheel?" another guessed.
Berry pointed to the front of the car. "The headlights," she said.
"I said that!" two students chorused.
The algebra scores at this rural high school have grown dramatically since the state takeover. In 2009, only 41 percent of its students passed the state algebra exam. Last year, more students took the exam, and nearly 90 percent passed. "We have worked really hard," Berry said, referring to teachers in the district. She said that the expectations for students and teachers have grown since the state took control. It's also helped, she added, that teachers have access to consultants and coaches. Unlike Hazlehurst, leadership in Tate County has remained consistent.
"The same leadership—and good leadership—sets a certain expectation for the school," Berry said.
A New Model
As the state considers whether to take control of dozens of schools this year, experts question whether Mississippi should be thinking along the lines of Memphis or New Orleans. Test scores for students in Louisiana's state-run Recovery School District, a network of low-performing schools in New Orleans and several other cities in Louisiana, have grown faster than any other public school district in the state. This September, the Recovery School District in New Orleans will become the nation's first ever all-charter school district.
Andy Smarick said that it can be harder for rural areas with fewer people, a smaller workforce, and less ability to attract charter school operators, to make the changes seen in large cities. "You're left without a lot of really good options," he said. "The set of solutions you can apply in urban areas, those things, in some sense, go out the window when you're talking about a sparsely populated area."
In Tate County, conservator James Malone is a believer in the potential of the current model of state takeovers. He says that the academic growth in the district is evidence that Tate County is ready to return to local control this year.
"It's been a long haul," Malone said. "But we feel that we got the job done."
Sarah Butrymowicz contributed to this report, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.
- North Panola, 1996-1997
- Tunica, 1997-2002
- Oktibbeha County, 1997-2002
- North Bolivar, 2005-2006
- Holmes County, 2006-2007
- Jefferson Davis County, 2007-2009
- North Panola, 2008- Present*
- Hazlehurst, 2008-Present
- Indianola 2009- Present
- Tate County 2009-Present
- Sunflower County 2010-Present
- Okolona School District 2010-12
- Aberdeen 2012-Present
- Oktibbeha County, 2012-Present
- Leflore County, 2013 - Present
- Claiborne County, 2013- Present
- Scott County, 2014- Present