Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Cedrick Gray is supportive of an ordinance that would levy penalties against parents of truant students.
Photo by Trip Burns
Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Cedrick Gray is on a professional island.
As the highest-ranking educator in Jackson, he has no peers he can look to—at least in Mississippi—as a model for how to fix the ailing school system. That's because there isn't another school district in the state that faces the challenges JPS faces. Neither does the state have a school system with as much potential as his district.
Last week, the Jackson Free Press reported on an ordinance, proposed by Ward 6 Councilman Tony Yarber, that would put penalties on the parents of JPS students caught skipping school in an effort to get parents more involved in making sure their children attend school. This week, we learned just how big the truancy problem is in the district.
JPS has 30,000 students, 9,000 of which are in high school. That number, alone, helps to explain why truancy laws are so hard to enforce in the capital city. The truancy rate—the percentage of students who record five or more un-excused absences during the last school year—was 39 percent for elementary schools, 48 percent for middle schools and a startling 71 percent for high school JPS students, according to Gray.
"For me, and for all of us, it's a major concern," Gray said. "Truancy leads to un-excused absences, and when you have those, that leads to a failing grade. Unfortunately, that path ultimately leads to negative activity and, based on conversations I've had with our youth court and detention center, the disengaged and disenfranchised student turns to non-productive activity."
The logic is simple. If a student is not in class, he or she isn't learning.
What isn't simple is finding the solution to the problem, as evidenced by a discussion at the United Way's Jackson offices Sept. 12. At that meeting, representatives from the Jackson Police Department, the Hinds County Sheriff's office, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the city of Jackson, the NAACP, and various other groups hashed out questions and concerns about the ordinance Councilman Yarber proposed.
The consensus? It is no silver bullet.
Yarber opened the meeting by sharing his story of property crime taking place in his ward during the day. He said he has had a long list of property stolen from his house and, in one instance, he came face-to-face with a 16-year-old who kicked in his door.
Although the Jackson Police Department was still in the process of gathering data, the officer at the meeting predicted that minors commit 85 percent of property crimes in south Jackson.
Yarber is convinced his ordinance will help by holding parents or guardians responsible for their child's attendance through fines and responsible parenting classes.
Thursday's group had concerns about the measure the way it stands. Some at the meeting thought the fines ($150 for second offense, $250 for third and subsequent offenses) are too low. Others showed concern for the parents of children who have been in and out of youth court and who have done everything they can do to no avail.
"One of our biggest concerns is that (the ordinance) does not address the root problem of why these students are not in school in the first place," ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins said. "Also, this seems to be a solution for the entire city that addresses a neighborhood problem."
Superintendent Gray said he applauded Yarber's effort to take action on the issue, and said he likes to think of the ordinance as one part of a two-part plan.
"There's first-order change and second-order change," Gray said. "Mr. Yarber realizes that we must do something now, and that's the first-order change. The second-order change comes from the people in this room when we try to address the reasons why these students are not attending school."
Yarber said he believes those skeptical of his ordinance should focus on the big picture.
"Everybody in the room is right," Yarber said. "We play different roles, but we need to be working together. It's like the offense and defense are fighting with each other when we are all on the same team."