CLINTON, Miss. — In 2016, half of all black students in Mississippi attended school in a district rated D or F; 86 percent of the students in those districts were black. In districts rated F, more than 95 percent of the student population was black.
Only one majority-black district in Mississippi earned an A on the state’s annual A–F rating scale. An apparent anomaly on a list of top school districts that is mostly white and largely affluent, including neighboring Madison County and Rankin County Public School districts, Clinton Public Schools managed to excel against the odds. It’s a sign that the Clinton district, located in a small but bustling suburb of Jackson, is on the right track to closing the black-white achievement gap and raising achievement levels for black students.
That gap is wide: Data from the state Department of Education shows the achievement gap between white and black students in Mississippi is 28 percent, larger than the gaps for other traditionally disadvantaged subgroups in the state, including those between English speakers and English-language learners and between students in special education and general education, according to Mississippi Department of Education data. The achievement gap between students who do and do not live in poverty is second highest, at 27 points.
Clinton’s ability to narrow these gaps is due, in part, to the district’s intentional integration. And though Clinton is far from being a post-racial mecca, students and administrators say that effort pays off. There are no black schools or white schools in Clinton. In a district that is about 53 percent black and 39 percent white, children share the same resources, teachers, and the same well-stocked classrooms and school buildings, regardless of their race or economic status.
Incoming superintendent Tim Martin says the district is closing the achievement gap between black and white students by setting the bar high, not only for administrative and teacher performance, but also for student success. He says the entire community of Clinton, from parents to educators, invests time and attention to make sure all students can succeed, regardless of their racial background.
“In my opinion the way to close those gaps is not to focus specifically on the gap, but to make sure you have high standards and high expectations,” he said. “You don’t want to [close the gap] by having white students score less; you want your minority students to rise and score at the same level. It’s not closed in one year; it’s student by student, family by family working together to stay successful.”
Philip Burchfield, the district’s former superintendent, says the district has been purposeful about seeking equity for its students. For decades, it has placed students into schools arranged by grade level instead of by neighborhood to achieve greater diversity, a strategy born in response to a 1970 desegregation order. (The city of Clinton includes a majority-black neighborhood within its borders, and roughly 38 percent of Clinton’s residents are black.)
“Our school system doesn’t have a neighborhood school of the haves and a neighborhood school of the have-nots,” said Burchfield, who retired as superintendent in June. “We always said if we start our kids off in Clinton it makes no difference; we’re going to give them the resources they need to be successful.”
Clinton can also attribute its success to the relatively low number of students living in poverty. Although about 40 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch, the poverty level in the city is 15.5 percent. Statewide, the poverty level for children is nearly double that. Superintendent Martin says the district doesn’t receive a “huge amount” of Title I funding to support its low-income students, but funnels money it does get toward helping students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and on acquiring intervention teachers.
“If we can give them a sound foundation whether they are from poverty, if they get that foundation, the rest of their education will be successful,” he said.
Related: How does Mississippi really compare when it comes to graduation rates?
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who studies socio-economic integration in education, says it’s “not at all surprising” that the only majority-black district in the state to receive an A grade is also economically integrated.
“African-American students and low-income students can perform well if given the right environment, but too many low-income students of color are consigned to high-poverty, segregated schools that don’t provide the ingredients necessary for success,” he said. “By taking steps to integrate its schools, Clinton is showing what is possible when all students are given access to strong, socioeconomically and racially integrated schools.”
A 2016 fact sheet on the impact of integration on students, by the non-profit Century Foundation, says that socioeconomically integrated schools provide students with a range of economic and social benefits, beyond academics. Attending a racially diverse school can result in a “dramatic decrease in discriminatory attitudes and prejudices” among students. Foundation fellow Kahlenberg noted that parental involvement tends to be “more robust” in wealthier schools, where parents may have more time and job flexibility to volunteer.
Twenty-one-year-old Nia Sims graduated from Clinton High School in 2014. The lifelong honors student, now on the verge of her final year at Mississippi State University in Starkville, says she wasn’t aware her high school had a black majority while she was there. Her AP classes, she says, were a mix of students of different racial, cultural and class backgrounds. Sims herself is black; her parents both work in the medical field — her mother is a pediatrician, and her father is an epidemiologist.
“It wasn’t strange to have friends that weren’t Christian or weren’t middle class,” she said. “It wasn’t strange to have friends with parents who had high school degrees, who had GEDs, Ph.D.s [and] master’s degrees.”
Though Clinton has seen success with its integration model, other school districts in less-affluent, rural areas of Mississippi still struggle to comply with federal desegregation orders of the 1960s and 70s. Historically, black students in the state have been on the short end of the educational stick; Mississippi’s extreme poverty and legacy of institutional racism have impeded their opportunities for success. The Cleveland School District in Bolivar County in the Mississippi Delta made headlines last year when a federal court forced its middle and high schools to consolidate to honor its desegregation order. In 2014, more than 60 districts in Mississippiwere still under federal desegregation orders.
Related: Report finds ‘significant’ decreases in state’s achievement gap
Clinton’s integration efforts aren’t perfect, either. Despite its relative success, Clinton is still dealing with achievement gaps in some grade levels and subject areas. And though the district is over half black, its teaching staff does not reflect that diversity, something Martin says the district is working on by making a dedicated effort to recruit from the state’s historically black colleges and universities.
Sims, however, says her school principals were normally people of color. “The majority of our school administrators were either black men or women,” she said. “It wasn’t strange at all to see a black person or woman of color in charge of us, which we didn’t realize a lot of students really don’t get.”
In Clinton, current and former students say the district’s reputation and ratings show it is doing something right.
“Turn on the TV, it’s always about Clinton. It’s always something good,” 18-year-old former student Normanda Brown said. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t come here.”
That reputation may be responsible for the speedy growth of the city and the district. The Jackson suburb will soon be home to one of three Continental Tire plant locations in the United States; the possibility of new jobs will most likely attract even more new people to the city. And as the city has grown, so has the district’s student body. High school students take classes in trailers parked outside the building to accommodate the large population of kids, an issue that won’t be quickly resolved, given the state’s recent cuts to the education budget.
But Martin has high expectations for Clinton’s future. “Future success, you can’t rest on past success, but you can learn from the past and continue to do the things that made you successful.”
“We do not back down from any expectation. We want excellence in behavior, discipline, academics — in all areas of a child’s education we expect excellence,” he said. “We expect them to be the best they can be, regardless of sex or race or anything about them. Children deserve to be pushed and expected to achieve at their highest level.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.