Not Separate, Still Unequal | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Not Separate, Still Unequal

<b>Part I: Filling the Gap</b>

What Hinds County Citizens for Public Education and Hinds County School District Superintendent Phyfa Eiland say they want for the children of the Hinds County School District are so close that it might at first glance be difficult to understand why the citizens' group is boycotting the district and demanding that Eiland step down. Until you look closer, and listen more carefully, and you see that the same issue that has complicated public education since 1865, and ripped the country apart in 1954 during the Brown vs. Board of Education case, is also center stage here: Race. Except that now this country's most volatile, problematic issue is no longer black and white.

Since the third week in January, Citizens for Public Education has called for a boycott of the district. Group members say they are concerned about the disparities in grades and discipline and treatment of black students and poor white students, a lack of respect shown black parents, and the reassignment of the most successful black educators from predominately black schools to white schools. They say black teachers are not being recruited, and that many white teachers and administrators are not culturally competent. And worst of all, many black kids are ending up casualties of a system that should be preparing them for life.

Eiland, who is white, has said that the group wants a black superintendent, period, and that she is not only not leaving, but is planning to move the district to the next level. She envisions a district where every child is doing his or her best, where the teachers are highly qualified and where the best technology is employed to enhance students' learning experience. That is exactly the same place that Jo Gregory, spokeswoman for the group, describes, but she says that it is not nearly a reality for most black students. "We know that some black students are doing well, but we're talking about the majority of black students," Gregory said.

Gregory says the district is a place where black children's spirits are crushed, instead of nurtured. And some black parents say their attempts to discuss problems with their children's teachers or principals are met with arrogance and attitude. But the most damning allegation that some black parents and the group make is that Eiland is trying to re-segregate the Hinds County Public School System.

These critics say Eiland is creating two totally different systems in the same district. The district has nine schools; predominately black schools are located in the western part of the county, while predominately white schools are located in the eastern part of the county. About 57 percent of the 5,900 students in the district are black, 34 percent of the teachers are black, and 50 percent of the administration is black. The group and some parents say that the two halves of the district are at least three decades apart.

Parents describe a place were black children are less valued by some white and some black teachers and principals and assistants, where poor white children are also mistreated, where less is expected of blacks and poor whites academically, and where they are more likely to be severely punished for minor offenses. Studies find that much of what they describe is the norm across this country. According to a decade-long study conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust, poor children and children of color are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, educators who expect less of them, and fewer chances of making it to college.

Eiland says she is concerned about the achievement gap between students and has put measures in place to address it. Particularly, she says, the district is committed to raising the level of achievement of all students. Over the past two years, she says the gap between the percentage of white students scoring proficient and higher on tests compared to the percent of black students scoring proficient and higher was closed in 17 of 21 areas, which she said is better than the state average. And she is committed, Eiland said, to continuing to close the gap.

But the three schools in the system that are level 2, which means they are under-performing, are predominately black.

Gregory, who pulled her son out of the district 17 years ago because she thought he was being graded unfairly by the substitute who replaced his teacher, left a job in health-care management to teach at Carver Elementary School during the mid-1990s. "I couldn't believe that in this age of technology that our children were graduating without being able to read or even speak properly. I took a big cut in pay to teach so I could see what some of the problems were."

The low level of academic skills that Gregory saw among high-school-aged blacks have been documented in a number of studies. "What we see," Katie Haycock, executive director of Education Trust, told educators in Jackson last month, "is that many African-American students who graduate from high school have the same level of skills as white students who have completed junior high." And she repeated that statistic for emphasis.

Gregory and other parents say that is unacceptable, and that it doesn't have to happen. "When I taught at Carver," Gregory said, "I know I made a difference. The principal was very supportive, and he wanted teachers who wanted to motivate students."

Even after students left her class, Gregory said they returned to show her their report cards. "Once they get excited about learning, that doesn't stop."

Though group members say that the trouble for blacks and poor whites in Hinds County Schools predate Eiland by more than 15 years, they say she is not qualified to turn things around. They question her credentials, her capability and her intentions.

Eiland says that her 20 years as a teacher and almost a decade in the business world has given her excellent credentials to lead the district. When she took the helm 3 1/2 years ago, she says she found a split between the west "feeder pattern" and the eastern "feeder pattern," but she does not describe the problems in racial terms.

"The two feeder patterns didn't cooperate with each other," she said. "They seemed to be jealous of each other, and they didn't work together."

Eiland says she put her administrators on notice. "I told them this school district is moving forward, and if they didn't want to move forward, they could leave."

Some group members say Eiland was gracious and appeared concerned for the entire district until a $21.5 million bond issue was passed in 2002. "Some of this was going on, but all of the stuff that we are seeing now didn't start until after she got the bond issue passed because she knew she wouldn't have been able to get the support she needed to pass it," Gregory said.

Eiland says she ran into some misperceptions, but she said she pulled together a racially diverse advisory committee that helped to get the bond issue passed and dispel some misperceptions in the process. Eiland said that some parents in the western "feeder pattern" believed that schools in the eastern "feeder patterns" were "Taj-Mahals—palaces that were wonderful learning environments with smaller classes."

She says that some parents believe more money is spent at white schools when the opposite is true. At Byram Middle School, which is predominately white, $4,214 is spent per child. At Gary Road Elementary, also predominately white, $4,194 is spent on each child. At Carver Middle School, which is predominately black, $8,856 is spent per child, and at Bolton/Edwards Elementary School, also predominately black, $13,004 is spent on each child, according to figures provided by Eiland at a press conference in January where she discussed the boycott.

Class sizes at mostly black schools also are smaller, she said. "Not a cent of the Title I money is spent in (predominately white) schools."

Smaller class sizes are possible at predominately black schools because many of the students at black schools are from families with low incomes, which means that they eat free or reduced lunches. That entitles the school to Title I funds—federal money that has been earmarked to provide services for disadvantaged students; it cannot be spent on services that students would ordinarily receive.

But some black parents insist that resources are not being distributed evenly, even when it comes to building new schools. They say a state-of-the-art facility is being built in Byram, which is predominately white, while additions are being made at predominately black Carver and Utica Elementary. "We need to quit saying we are getting a new school at Carver," said Loretha Harris, a parent who attended the group's meeting in Utica on March 6. "We are getting add-ons at Carver. And we need to stop saying that we are getting a new school at Utica because we're getting add-ons at Utica."

Eiland said schools are being built and renovated based on need. She said the elementary school at Byram was in bad shape, and the other schools had problems with flooding and aesthetics that could be fixed through renovation.

Henry Grigsby, one of the founders of the group, said an evil game is being played, however. He said he first noticed problems in the district around 1999 when he was selected Parent of the Year at Utica Elementary School. He said he heard about an elementary child who had been suspended 18 times in one year.

And then he became concerned about children being bussed from Utica Elementary to Carver Elementary. "They were getting up at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus at 6:20."

These parents say that Eiland is moving the district back to a time when schools were separate and unequal, "and if we let her do this," Grigsby told the 50 or so people (including eight ministers) attending the meeting, "it's just like B.B. King says: 'It's your own fault, baby.'"

Gregory says Eiland is trying to make the white schools palatable for white parents to bring children back in from private schools—Rebel Academy and Hinds Central Academy—which would shift the racial make-up in favor of whites.

Eiland says Gregory is absolutely right about her wanting the district to be desirable to parents whose children are not now attending. "I'm trying to make the district more palatable to every parent—whether they are home-schoolers or African Americans or whatever. I want them to see public school as a viable option."

And it's working. Students are beginning to drift back into the district, though not in significant numbers. At least, not yet. "They are saying that they believe our schools are safe, and they are saying that our (high-stakes test) scores are up," Eiland said.

Harris told the parents at the meeting to take charge of their children's education and the west side of the district. "These white parents are saying what they want and they are getting it, and we're sitting up here letting Phyfa Eiland run the west side for us," she said.

Parents are the most disturbed about the discipline disparities that they say exists in the district. Gregory is on the agenda to discuss discipline at the board's March 11 meeting.

The last time the group tried to address the board, they were ignored, she says.

"Hundreds of us were there, filling up the boardroom and the back hallway, and we waited patiently until they finished the meeting, and they acted just like we were invisible or something."

Eiland says that parents weren't recognized because they had not stated what they wanted to address the board about in their written request prior to the Dec. 11 meeting. She said the board has to know what people intend to discuss so it can be prepared.

At that meeting, Gregory told the board, which is elected and has two black members and three white members, that the group wanted Eiland gone in 30 days. Shortly afterward, the board renewed the superintendent's contract until 2007.

"They were sending us a message that they don't care what we think," Gregory said. "And if that's the way they treat the people who elected them, then they have to go, too."

This story is the first in a series of articles on "not separate but still unequal" education.

Previous Comments


Hi Group I'm new here to the message board. I heard about this site from my work. I'm not from Jackson. I live in the small rual community of Canton just north of you folks. I was just reading the article about the Hinds County School District Superintendent Phyfa Eiland and the boycott matters. I was suprised that Hinds County didn't already have a Black American Superintendent. Also, the parents aren't concerned with there childrens education if they keep there kids out of school. Also, Phyfa Eiland should listen to the concerned parents. I read in the article above about a child who had been suspended 18 times in one year. Someone is not doing there job. Either this student is bad & the school does not really care to expel this student, or the parents are not doing there job punishing this student. I two was a poor student in a rich school at one time so, I can see where some of the parents are coming from. I also see where the school district is coming from.

D. L. (Bubba) Skinner

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.