CLINTON, Miss. — When Zach Osborn was growing up in this central Mississippi town, he had no idea that the diverse classrooms he sat in each day were an anomaly. Instead of attending neighborhood schools with students of the same race and economic status, as most children do in Mississippi, Osborn went to school with an even mix of black and white classmates, some from the town’s wealthy subdivisions and others from Clinton’s poorer areas.
That’s because all the kids in this diverse suburb just northwest of Jackson attend the same school for kindergarten and first grade, then move on to the second- and third-grade school and continue together on through high school.
“Eventually, as I made friends from other places, I realized Clinton does things a little different,” Osborn said.
Clinton has been doing things differently since the early 1970s. Organizing its schools by grade level instead of neighborhood has resulted in a district with some of the most racially and economically diverse schools in Mississippi. They’re also extremely successful. Even as poverty rates have grown in the district of about 5,000 students, Clinton has consistently remained an academic powerhouse in a state where many schools are still separate and unequal.
Osborn, who graduated from Clinton in 2005 and returned five years ago to teach history at the high school, said the benefits of Clinton’s plan stuck out to him even as a kid. “There are no rivalries within the district and no real concept of socioeconomic status,” Osborn said. “There is no poor school or wealthy school … we are all together from the very beginning.”
More than 60 years after the court case Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of segregated schooling, Mississippi’s children still largely attend schools identifiable by race. And for Mississippi’s black children, nearly half of whom live in poverty, that usually means being stuck in schools that are subpar.
In 2012-13, black students accounted for more than 90 percent of enrollment at over a quarter of the schools in Mississippi, according to federal and state school district data compiled by Jake McGraw, public policy coordinator at the Mississippi-based William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and editor of the blog Rethink Mississippi. (The overwhelming majority of these schools, which education experts have defined as “intensely segregated,” received the lowest three ratings on the state’s A-F rating scale, based on factors like student test scores and graduation rates.)
Meanwhile, their white counterparts tended to attend more affluent public schools or private schools, many of which were created to avoid integration orders and are still referred to as “segregation academies."
Experts agree that bringing children from diverse backgrounds together has numerous benefits. Researchers have found that students in diverse schools can become less prejudiced and more empathetic, and may work harder. A 2011 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that school desegregation increased education attainment and adult earnings, and decreased the likelihood of incarceration for black students, mainly because of access to more resources.
An emerging body of research has found that middle-class students benefit from racial and economic diversity in schools, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a New York City-based think tank. “More learning goes on when there’s a richer variety of perspectives in classroom discussions,” Kahlenberg said. “Thinking longer term … employers are looking for employees who can flourish in diverse environments and know how to get along with people of all different backgrounds as our nation becomes more racially and ethnically diverse.”
The research has sparked recent interest as some districts and charter schools experiment with new strategies to integrate schools without resorting to practices like the forced busing that spurred protests among both white and black parents in earlier decades. President Obama’s 2017 budget cites the benefits of integration and proposes a $120 million initiative that would provide competitive grants to school districts that are “exploring ways to foster socioeconomic diversity.”
Despite the benefits, however, the number of school districts actively trying to increase integration is still very low. Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independent publication based at Teachers College), said that diversity can be a hard sell for parents, who often judge whether a school is “good” or not based on what they’ve heard from their neighbors and on the relative affluence of the students who attend.
“You should look at those all-white schools in Mississippi and ask ‘Is that a good school?’ ” said Wells. “It has good test scores, but what are those kids learning? How are they understanding the world, and how is it going to help them when they leave their little white enclave in Mississippi?”
““We have such an opportunity to say this works. Diversity works.””
Lessons from Clinton — which wasn’t always a shining example of diversity and racial tolerance — could offer a way forward for other suburbs and towns, and even large districts like New York City and Washington, D.C., where superintendents have acknowledged the benefits of creating and maintaining diverse schools.
A Rough Start
In the summer of 1970, when Virgil Belue arrived at the new Clinton Separate School District to be its first superintendent, there were only four weeks left until the start of the school year. He had no central office, no budget, and no bank account. The district’s first school board meeting on August 3, 1970, had 19 agenda items, including determining the district’s sick leave policy and finding furniture for the elementary school.
The new district’s name was telling: It had split that year from the larger — and mostly black — Hinds County School District in the wake of a lawsuit that had forced the larger district to desegregate. At the time, the Supreme Court was in the process of deciding a series of cases that opened the door to forced busing as communities resisted integration.
Belue said Clinton residents wanted more control over local schools, and the borders of the new district were created along an attendance zone outlined in Hinds County’s federally approved desegregation plan.
But Clinton Separate School District mostly served a majority-white section of town. In the wake of Clinton’s secession, the proportion of students in the Hinds County district that were white declined from 45 percent to 32 percent. The percentage of black students rose from 55 percent to 68 percent.
Aware of the threat of lawsuits, and inspired by the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child growing up in rural Mississippi, Belue decided to abandon traditional neighborhood schools and create a community school system, in which all children in each grade in the district would attend the same school and move through the district’s schools together.
Over the next two years, Belue quietly met with local community groups and talked to leaders individually to sell his idea. By the end of his second year as superintendent, the school board had approved his plan, and the district began to distribute various grade levels through the district’s four schools.
When Clinton launched in 1970, 85 percent of its students were white and only 15 percent were black, a fact that likely smoothed Belue’s path. In larger school districts with higher percentages of black students, such as Little Rock and Charlotte, integration efforts faced massive, often violent, resistance.
Still, tensions occasionally erupted between white and black students. For the first few years, white students refused to elect black students to the homecoming court and to leadership positions, for example. So Belue started a new policy during the 1972-73 school year: students would have to elect one white student and one black student at large to student government, as well as to the homecoming court.
One night after this policy was announced, Belue’s house was egged. A sign made out of butcher paper was left in his yard. In big letters, students had printed, “Dr. Belue, one white at large, one black at large, we egg thee at large.”
“I never mentioned it,” Belue said with a laugh. “I never called the police and never complained to anybody about it. I just went right on.”
Belue’s plan wasn’t enough to insulate the district from the legal fights roiling the rest of the country. In 1977, the federal government sued Clinton to force it to rejoin the Hinds County district, arguing that its secession had impeded broader integration efforts.
As part of a consent decree, instead of rejoining Hinds, Clinton absorbed a mostly African-American neighborhood, which increased its black student population dramatically. The school buildings in the newly added neighborhood became the district’s sixth-grade and ninth-grade schools. (Clinton, like 59 other districts in Mississippi, is still under a federal desegregation order.)
Clinton didn’t experience the catastrophic white and middle-class flight that sent other newly integrated districts spiraling downward academically, however. Instead, it thrived as its percentage of black students increased incrementally over the years, from 15 percent in 1970 to 54 percent today (white students now make up 38 percent of district enrollment). About half of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch due to household income. And still, regardless of race, income or neighborhood, all students in the same grade attend the same school each year.
Belue said Clinton’s unique plan avoided alienating parents with forced busing and kept middle-class resources invested in schools across the district.
“You avoid having schools with wealthy parents supplementing support for one school on one side of town, and none of that going on on the other side of town,” Belue said.
On a fall morning at Northside Elementary, students in a diverse third-grade classroom were sitting in small groups, each group working on a different assignment. At one table, a mix of black and white students were talking quietly and glancing at one another’s work as they filled out a chart to compare and contrast characters from two different stories. At another table, students were silently reading a passage on individual iPads. At another, students were engrossed in a short text about an octopus and its ability to camouflage.
Principal Joy Tyner walked into the room and glanced over one student’s shoulder to see what he was working on.
The student looked up at Tyner. “Do you know my name?” he asked with a small smile.
“Landon,” Tyner said, without missing a beat. She looked at the second student in the group, and then the third. “Claudia. Hudson.” The three students smiled and returned to their work.
“I love the fact that I can walk down the hall and look into any class and it looks like Mississippi,” Tyner said.
Even as its demographics have changed, Clinton has repeatedly outperformed other districts in the state. Last year, about 85 percent of its 12th-graders graduated high school, nearly four percentage points higher than the national average, and nearly 10 percentage points higher than the state average. During the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year available for which state test score data is broken down by race, nearly 94 percent of black students in Clinton passed the state algebra exam, compared to the state average of less than 79 percent of black students. In subjects like biology and English, where Clinton’s black students lagged their white peers, they still passed at rates far higher than the state average for black students.
This academic success is evident in younger grades too. On the state’s recent third-grade reading exams, 98 percent of Clinton’s third-graders passed on the first try — statewide, the first-time pass rate was 85 percent.
Parents and teachers say that the success is due to many factors, but is especially aided by the fact that all students receive the same quality of teachers, supplies and instruction. In Clinton, where about 15 percent of children under age 18 live in poverty, all students attend schools rated among the best in the state, with pristine buildings and an abundance of supplies.
“By all of our kids being together, they’re all held to the same standards,” said Beth Raney, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Sumner Hill Junior High. “Every child in Clinton has the same opportunity, and it’s important to teach our children that as well: that everyone should stand on the same foot, everyone should have equal opportunity.”
In 2013, the district started to provide a laptop or iPad to each student in grades K-12; students and teachers say that doing so has boosted college readiness and digital skills. “The emotional benefit of having everyone on the same playing field is a big deal for these kids,” said Tyner.
With the majority of parents in the town invested in the public schools, there is also an endless stream of parent volunteers, especially at the elementary schools. At some schools, the parent teacher organizations raise as much as $30,000 per year, all the more striking because — since students only stay at each school for a year or two — the money is raised knowing that it will mostly benefit future students, not current ones.
Tim Martin, assistant superintendent of Clinton, said that’s one of the “beautiful parts” of the model: every family has skin in the game. “They’re really paying it forward for somebody else’s kids,” Martin said. “Your kid’s fixing to be gone the next year but you’re still raising money to help that school because other kids are coming.”
““I love the fact that I can walk down the hall and look into any class and it looks like Mississippi.””
Students don’t seem to mind switching schools so often, in part because the faces of their peers stay the same. “It’s better to learn when you’re in an uncomfortable environment,” said Zada Perry, a ninth-grader at Sumner Hill Junior High. “Moving around helps me because I get to see different things. If you’re in the same place, you always do the same thing.”
There are also benefits for teachers, say district officials. Especially at the district’s two schools that enroll only one grade instead of two, teachers are better able to tailor lessons, school services and programs to serve students who are navigating the tricky times of adolescence, Martin said. And teachers are supported by administrators who are experts on instruction for those specific grades. “With the curriculum being as complex as it is, there’s no excuse for me not to know the curriculum with two grades,” Principal Tyner said. “I’m an expert on second- and third-grade curriculum because I’ve had an opportunity to do that. When I talk to administrators who are dealing with kindergarten through sixth grade … how can you truly be an instructional leader?”
Jake McGraw of the William Winter Institute said that Clinton’s success has been helped by certain factors that aren’t present in most Mississippi towns. The median household income in Clinton is $60,161, compared to the state average of just under $40,000. The town is in close proximity to the capital of Jackson, and there are more jobs than in rural parts of the state. The town is also home to Mississippi College, which provides jobs and supports the local economy.
McGraw said towns like Clinton that have embraced public education, and a few others throughout the state, tend to have similar pasts. “You can usually trace it back to strong civic leadership,” McGraw said. “The towns that have the strongest support for public schools are often the ones that had strong white civic leaders who stood behind the public schools when many whites in the state were fleeing them … and that has a ripple effect into the present.”
No silver bullet
Desegregation may have benefits, but it doesn’t solve every problem. Even supporters acknowledge that although diverse schools help provide equal opportunities, they don’t necessarily ensure equal outcomes for all students.
In Clinton, an achievement gap persists between white and black students in many subject areas and grade levels, although this gap has been shrinking in recent years. In 2009, 52 percent of black seventh-graders scored “proficient” on the state English language arts exam, compared to 85 percent of white students. By 2013, that gap had narrowed significantly, with 84 percent of black students “proficient,” compared to 95 percent of white students. In some subjects, however, such as fifth- and eighth-grade science, gaps have remained stubborn, although they are far smaller than the statewide gaps.
Tim Martin said the district has not specifically targeted black students when it comes to closing these gaps. Rather, each school has at least one intervention teacher, who focuses on working with any student who struggles.
Richard Kahlenberg said that districts trying to integrate schools need to realize they’ll have to do more to actually close gaps. “It’s not enough simply to bring children of different backgrounds together,” Kahlenberg said. “The teachers need to be trained to capitalize on diversity, be sensitive to the needs of students from all different backgrounds, and efforts need to be made to try to ensure that school classrooms don’t become segregated within integrated school buildings.”
For a district of a few thousand students, Clinton’s got “a very effective integration plan,” said Teachers College’s Stuart Wells. But administrators in Clinton agree that organizing schools by grade instead of neighborhood might be harder in larger districts. Indeed, as Clinton itself grows, Martin said the district is preparing to make new arrangements to accommodate more students.
Teacher Zach Osborn said Clinton’s success is a chance to prove that integration can lead to positive outcomes for all students.
“We have such an opportunity to say this works,” Osborn said. “Diversity works.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.