The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools
One Saturday afternoon in late May, a few days before the end of his junior year, Harvey Ellington plopped onto his queen-size bed, held up his …
One Saturday afternoon in late May, a few days before the end of his junior year, Harvey Ellington plopped onto his queen-size bed, held up his phone and searched for a signal. The 17-year-old lived in a three-bedroom trailer on an acre lot surrounded by oak trees, too far into the country for broadband, but eventually his cell found the hot spot his high school had lent him for the year. He opened his email and began to type.
“Good evening! Hope all is well! Congratulations on being the new superintendent for the Holmes County Consolidated School District.”
A week and a half earlier, the school board chose Debra Powell, a former high school principal and mayor of East St. Louis, Ill., to lead the rural school district that Ellington attended in the Mississippi Delta. Powell worked as an administrator at Ellington’s school before the pandemic, and she ran track with Jackie Joyner-Kersee when she was a teenager. Maybe, Ellington thought, Powell had what it took to turn the district around.
Ellington’s fingers hovered over his cellphone screen. Soon he would be a high-school senior, and he wanted to sound perfect. He looked around his bedroom, first at the sign that said, “You are worth more than gold,” then at his dresser, where he’d propped a copy of Carter Woodson’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro” underneath a picture of the superintendent’s round-table meeting. Ellington served on the student advisory group his freshman year, and he was president his sophomore year, but the round table no longer existed.
“I have laid out some ideas and changes I want to see,” he wrote to Powell.
Ellington was 7 the first time someone told him the state of Mississippi considered Holmes a failing district. Holmes had earned a D or an F almost every year since then, and Ellington felt hollowed out with embarrassment every time someone rattled off the ranking. Technically, the grade measured how well, or how poorly, Ellington and his classmates performed on the state’s standardized tests, but he knew it could have applied to any number of assessments. His school didn’t have clubs, and even before the pandemic, they hardly went on field trips. Every year, teaching positions sat unfilled for months at a time. The football team often made the playoffs, but the field at the high school was inadequate, and so the squad had to travel 10 miles west to play outside an elementary school.
“Let’s bring a Debate team!!” Ellington wrote. “lets bring back the 18 wheeler club, Lets bring organization for kids that love to write books especially myself. … Let’s engage more with our kids so they can improve their ACT scores! Let’s bring some positive things around the community so kids can stay out of trouble after school! Let’s bring a big boys and girls club like a huge boys and girls club.”
As he typed, Ellington could hear his younger brothers playing Xbox games in the living room. Ellington had spent most of 2020 guiding the 5- and 6-year-olds through their virtual school days as he tried to tune into his own lessons. After almost failing a class in the fall, he earned mostly B’s in the spring, but he couldn’t take another year of learning that way. Finally, he thought, they had reached the end of what people had been calling a lost year.
In his email, Ellington didn’t mention any of the things he’d lost. He didn’t tell Powell he spent weeks waiting for Wi-Fi and a Chromebook, and he didn’t admit that he skipped parts of his classes as he cooked oatmeal and bacon for his brothers while his mother worked a nursing job an hour away. He didn’t explain that he needed the A.C.T. help as much as anyone. He took the test once during the pandemic, and he scored several points lower than the state average. He could take it again, but few students at his high school had scored higher.
Ellington knew that teenagers elsewhere were eager to return to normal — to schools with clubs, air-conditioning and a reliable slate of certified teachers. But Ellington didn’t want to return to the normal he’d known. He wanted to believe the new superintendent would turn Holmes into the kind of high school that students elsewhere took for granted. He understood how difficult it would be for one person to make progress after years of systemic neglect. Maybe it would take a decade. Maybe he would be long gone. But the one thing Ellington knew he could offer was his experience, and so, he decided, if the new superintendent wrote back, he would tell her everything he learned over the last three years.
“Please get back at me,” he typed. “This is so important to me! Let’s make it happen!!!!”
Harvey Ellington.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times
Ellington spent much of his life daydreaming about leaving Holmes County. Lexington, the largest town in the area, has only a handful of sit-down restaurants and no movie theater. “We don’t even have a Walmart,” Ellington often complained. For teenagers, the lack of amenities meant there was nothing to do, but Ellington understood the deeper implications: In the United States, communities must pay for their own schools. Without businesses, Holmes didn’t have the tax base to give its children an adequate education.
While researchers and activists have spent decades detailing the ways urban schools have failed children, students like Ellington are learning in more dire conditions. Most of the country’s poorest counties are rural, and two years ago, leaders at the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit group, found that decades of population loss and divestment by state governments has left many rural communities facing “nothing less than an emergency” when it comes to educating children.
Nationwide, more than 9.3 million children — nearly a fifth of the country’s public-school students — attend a rural school. That’s more than attend the nation’s 85 largest school districts combined. And yet their plight has largely remained off the radars of policymakers. John White, the deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, says that every time the nation or individual states roll out an education program, he searches for the word “rural.” “You either find one or two words or none at all,” he said.
The problems rural schools face, White says, are distinct and require distinct solutions. Not only are rural communities more likely to be impoverished, they’re also often disconnected from the nonprofits and social-service agencies that plug holes in urban and suburban schools. Many don’t have access to broadband internet, and some don’t even have cellphone service, making it hard for young people to tap outside resources. Rural schools have a difficult time recruiting teachers and principals. And long before the pandemic turned “ventilation” into a buzzword for anxious parents, rural children were learning in aging buildings with broken HVAC systems and sewers too old to function properly.
Money won’t solve all of those problems, White says, “but money and political will can do a whole lot for poor, rural communities.” The larger issue, he and other rural advocates argue, is that most states aren’t creating specific plans to address the myriad challenges rural communities face. For the last two decades, the Rural School and Community Trust has tried to change that by issuing biennial rankings of what it considers the highest-priority states when it comes to rural education. Mississippi has topped the list every year. Nearly half the state’s students attend a rural school, but its Legislature spends less than all but two others on rural instruction. This has left many of its rural districts, including Holmes, in a perpetual cycle of failure.
Mississippi’s Department of Education doesn’t have any staff members dedicated to rural issues, and its most recent strategic plan doesn’t even include the word rural. But in 2016, when Ellington was in middle school, Republican lawmakers concluded that the best way to bolster Holmes was to consolidate it with Durant Public Schools, an even smaller and equally poor district 12 miles east, so that the districts could pool their resources.
Leaders from Holmes and Durant begged state lawmakers to consider alternatives. Several states have tried consolidation, and studies have consistently found that forced mergers rarely save much money and often don’t boost student achievement. What Holmes and Durant needed, their leaders said, was more money from the state.
Mississippi lawmakers have long known that rural districts can’t compete with wealthier suburban schools. In 1994, legislators even rolled out a new funding model designed to increase rural districts’ budgets. But the state has only fully funded the law three times in the last three decades, and leaders from Durant and Holmes argued that the shortfall had left both districts in a bind. (In the 2017-18 school year alone, the state shorted them by a combined $1.5 million.) The school buildings were too old and dilapidated to hold additional students, they said. Neither district had enough buses, and both needed computers and other modern technology. If the state didn’t want to give money, the Holmes superintendent suggested, it could at least send in educators to help improve the district’s graduation rate.
Lawmakers consolidated anyway. A few schools closed, and the superintendents lost their jobs, but little else changed. Without more state support, the district was left to do what small, poor communities often must: Trust that a new leader, working without additional resources, could somehow fix decades of entrenched problems. And so, in early 2018, Holmes County board members set out to find the right person to lead the combined district toward success.
James Henderson, the man the board selected, had never been a superintendent, but he had worked in St. Louis and Houston as a middle-school teacher, a human resources manager and a deputy superintendent. In his interview, he explained that he understood Holmes and its particular challenges because he grew up on a farm on the county’s north end. The district had struggled financially since the 1970s, and in 1982, the year after Henderson graduated, students averaged a score of nine on the A.C.T. — more than six points lower than the Mississippi average and less than half of the 18.4 nationwide mean. As he looked over the district’s latest test scores, he imagined a boy — someone a little like Ellington — growing up in conditions Henderson knew were subpar. The district’s average A.C.T. score rose to 15 in the years he was away — still three points below the state mean — but only 9 percent of Holmes students were proficient in math.
Board members told Henderson that if he took the job, he would need to lift Holmes off the F list by summer 2020. Otherwise, the state might go beyond consolidating — it might take away local control entirely. For Henderson, the threat made the job more attractive. Most of Mississippi’s lawmakers and state school-board members were white. All but a dozen of Holmes County’s 3,000 students were Black. Henderson told himself he wouldn’t let white people decide what was best for Black students.
Henderson moved to Holmes from Maryland the summer before Ellington’s freshman year. A few weeks into the fall semester, Henderson announced plans to bring clubs back to the high school. He started by creating the superintendent’s round table, and one morning, after teachers nominated candidates, a secretary used the intercom to call 17 students to the library. Most were the kind of overachievers who might have run for student council if one existed. The prospective valedictorian eventually joined, as did a champion rodeo rider.
When the secretary announced Ellington’s name, the boy told himself he wouldn’t volunteer. He was quiet and a little anxious, and other kids bullied him. But after he stepped into the library, he changed his mind. Henderson almost seemed to radiate. His overcoat was so long it touched his ankles, and his blue-and-gold suit seemed to be brand-new. He looked, Ellington thought, like no one else in Mississippi. As Ellington drew closer, he smelled a cologne he assumed was expensive, and when Henderson reached for his hand, the teenager felt something new. Hope.
Henderson crisscrossed the county his first year on the job. He would spend a morning in the Delta, talking to parents whose roads were so flooded that school buses could not travel down them; then he would speed east toward the tiny towns of Goodman or Pickens. At every stop, Henderson discovered a new challenge. The district didn’t have an electronic requisitions system; if a teacher needed supplies, she had to submit a paper copy, and sometimes, if a principal’s fan was blowing hard, that paper slipped onto the floor and was lost forever. Most of the elementary schools didn’t offer prekindergarten classes, and the high school, which had gone through four principals in two years, needed a new leader.
The county is 756 square miles, and no school is especially close to another. Henderson spent hours just commuting. By fall 2019, as Henderson pushed past cotton fields and soybean farms toward Durant, the odometer on his district-issued Crown Victoria read 225,000 miles.
Durant lost its high school in the consolidation, but an elementary school remained open in a century-old Art Deco building a block from the town’s main drag. The school didn’t have a parking lot, so that September Henderson pulled onto the grass, then headed toward the cafeteria, where he had invited staff members to lay out their complaints in what he called a Chat-n-Chew. Teachers drifted in around 10:30 a.m., and Henderson motioned toward a white card table, where an assistant had laid out sandwiches, juice and bags of chips.
“Whatever’s on your mind, good, bad, ugly, indifferent, just talk to me,” Henderson said. “What can I do right now?”
The teachers remained quiet as they waited for someone else to speak. Finally, a language-arts teacher said that most classrooms didn’t have textbooks. No one had science books, another teacher said, and the few reading materials instructors had were so outdated they didn’t even cover the skills kids would need to demonstrate on state tests. A music teacher who taught reading had grown so frustrated that he started bringing his own printer from home each week to run off scans of another instructor’s book.
The teachers nodded. Most said they were paying for basic supplies themselves, though they earn less than teachers elsewhere do. The average teacher in Holmes made $44,000. Statewide, teachers earned an average of $47,000, and educators in Madison, an upscale, majority-white suburb outside Jackson, made close to $51,000. The state’s wages are particularly low — the Rural School and Community Trust found in 2018 that Mississippi’s rural teacher salaries are the sixth-lowest in the country — but the wage discrepancy between rural and other instructors is true across the United States.
As the teachers grew more emboldened, Henderson held his wire-rimmed glasses in one hand and wrote notes on a legal pad with the other. “What else?” he asked.
A kindergarten teacher explained that the county still didn’t have enough buses or drivers to operate them and so they picked up kids in shifts. Half the school’s students didn’t arrive until the first period was nearly over. The school didn’t have enough teachers either. Half the instructors were uncertified, and almost all of second grade was being taught by substitutes, meaning kids showed up for third-grade multiplication lessons not knowing how to add.
Henderson promised the teachers that he would fill the second-grade positions, but he wasn’t sure how. As young people have gravitated toward cities, rural districts across the country have struggled to recruit qualified teachers. Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Washington have declared dire shortages, and in Montana, 65 percent of rural schools in remote settings reported difficulty filling vacancies in 2018, compared with 35 percent of nonrural schools. School leaders have yet to find solutions, in part because there’s no single reason for the shortage. Nationwide, enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined by more than one-third since 2010, and new instructors can afford to be choosy. Some have told researchers that they don’t want to live in towns with few amenities or jobs for their spouses. And while the pay is lower in rural schools, the work can be harder: When a district employs few qualified educators, certified instructors often find themselves having to teach multiple subjects.
The most promising solution is one educators call “grow your own.” Under this model, rural districts encourage students to return home after college to teach. The idea is that young people who grow up in rural settings may be more likely to accept the bucolic life as an adult, but the model has one flaw: In order to grow its own teachers, a district must produce enough college graduates to fill its vacancies. Rural students are far less likely to go to college than their urban and suburban counterparts, and they’re less likely to finish once they start.
Mississippi had more than 1,000 open positions the year Henderson took over, and a third of the state’s districts had a teacher shortage. The state has had a shortage since at least the 1990s. In 1998, legislators attempted to solve it by passing the Critical Teacher Shortage Act, a law that offered scholarships, loan repayment and moving reimbursements to instructors who agreed to teach in understaffed districts like Holmes. But by 2019, that shortage was six times worse than it was before the law took effect, according to a report in the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today. Policy analysts at the University of Arkansas have found that similar financial incentives did not work in their state, either. Lawmakers tried offering cash bonuses, loan forgiveness and mortgage help to attract teachers to rural districts. Still, Arkansas’s shortage remains.
John White, the former federal employee who worked with rural schools, says that while hiring teachers can be a challenge in any district, rural leaders have told him they face problems few urban schools ever do. “I’ve talked to superintendents who say, ‘John, we don’t even get any applications,’” he told me.
When Henderson became superintendent, roughly half of Holmes County teachers were long-term substitutes or uncertified workers who hadn’t passed the licensure exam. He had since booked a dozen recruiting events at local colleges and purchased 13 billboards across the state, imploring teachers to consider Holmes. He had netted a few applicants, but not enough to fill the district’s openings, so in his second year, he began helping uncertified workers earn their licenses. Just that week, he told the teachers at the Chat-N-Chew, he had started free night classes to show substitutes how to add and multiply fractions, skills they would need to demonstrate on the certification test.
The teachers looked down at their sandwiches, all of which remained untouched. No one looked hopeful.
“Anything else?” Henderson asked.
The teachers said they needed paper and computer cords and at least one set of science textbooks that met state standards. By 11:30, Henderson had filled half his notebook. Eventually, a bell rang, the teachers left and three cheerful cafeteria workers took their place. The women told Henderson they had few complaints. Really, one woman whispered, there was only one. The school’s drainage had stopped working, and sewage was spilling onto the kitchen floors.
That evening, after working 10 hours in Durant and Lexington, Henderson drove west until his GPS gave out and cotton blew like snow over the cracked windshield of his Crown Victoria. He parked at the end of a yellow dirt road on a lot wedged between a plantation and a school that had closed down years ago. It was 97 degrees, and the school didn’t have air-conditioning, but it was the only building in Mileston, Miss., big enough for a meeting, so Henderson had booked it for the kickoff of what he hoped would become his signature success — a school-bond campaign.
The people who fought consolidation had been right, Henderson thought, when they told lawmakers that their buildings weren’t adequate. All but two of the county’s schools suffered from the kind of problems the Durant cafeteria workers identified that morning. Sewage bubbled from bathroom floors, and mold crept along classroom ceilings. One elementary school was cracked down to its foundation.
Researchers have consistently found over the last several decades that young people who learn in newer, functional buildings outperform those who attend school in aging or substandard facilities. Students may grow distracted if their classrooms are too hot or too dim to make out the board, and schools with poor ventilation may leave children drowsy as hundreds of teenagers exhale carbon dioxide into the air. In the most dire situations — settings like the ones Holmes County students sat through every weekday — mold can sicken teachers and students enough to miss class.
Henderson had seen the research, and he believed that many of his district’s problems led back to its buildings. How could he attract teachers to work in schools with raw sewage? How could students learn without qualified teachers?
The problem was, Henderson couldn’t just replace the old schools. The district didn’t have enough money, and state lawmakers had made clear during the consolidation process that they didn’t intend to help Holmes pay for new facilities. That’s not unusual: Twelve states offer no support for construction, and only eight pay for more than half of local districts’ infrastructure. The federal government occasionally chips in FEMA money for disaster recovery, but its contributions have accounted for less than 1 percent of what the nation’s schools have spent on buildings. The result is what leaders at the nonpartisan group the [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition call the “most regressive element of public-education finance.” Over the last decade, Mississippi’s urban and suburban districts have invested two and three times more than rural ones have into their facilities. If a school district wants a new building, its residents must agree to pay for it themselves by passing a school bond. In wealthy counties, that’s manageable, but Holmes suffered from a two-pronged dilemma: Not only were its residents poor, there also weren’t that many of them, and so each person had to cover a greater share of the cost.
Henderson had been telling people that a bond was like a mortgage. If voters approved one, the district would borrow money from the bank, residents’ car and property taxes would go up and then, over the next two decades, the district would use those tax dollars to pay back the loan.
Most of the district’s buildings were at least 50 years old, but Henderson knew he could never pass a bond big enough to replace every school. Instead, he and the board had decided to ask voters to approve an $18.4 million bond to rebuild the one school every student would eventually attend — its high school.
In 1958, when its public schools still had white students, the county built the high school as a segregated institution for Black children. The Lexington Attendance Center for Negroes opened with a full library and a state-of-the-art science lab, but it had already begun to fall into disrepair by the time Henderson enrolled in the late 1970s, and little had been done to keep it up since. The photos hanging high on the brick walls were from the 1980s, and the classrooms were painted in the same dingy coat of pale yellow Henderson had disdained as a student. The only thing that had changed was the school’s name — first to J.J. McClain High School, after a beloved Black principal, then to Holmes County Central High School.
A new high school would infuse the county with pride, Henderson believed. It would attract teachers and give teenagers like Ellington a fair shot at learning.
But as Henderson waited outside the meeting, he knew that a tax hike would be a hard sell. He watched as two farmers wearing cowboy boots caked with mud climbed out of a pickup truck that looked at least 30 years old. Holmes was the poorest county in the poorest state, and Henderson was about to ask residents to collectively raise close to $20 million. He took a deep breath, then followed the men inside.
By 6 p.m., 50 people sat on metal folding chairs that volunteers had arranged in the abandoned school. Henderson slipped toward the front, turned on the kind of projector schools used in the 1980s, then faced the crowd. “At the beginning of the school year, it was as hot as it was today,” he said. “Every school was just breaking down.”
Every weekday, Henderson explained, 800 of the county’s teenagers crammed into a 61-year-old high school that had no air-conditioning, no heat and, some days, no running water. Most of the classrooms smelled like mold, and the hallways flooded when it rained. The outside was so antiquated that prospective teachers sometimes took one look, then peeled out of the parking lot.
“Our kids can’t learn in those environments,” Henderson told the crowd.
When he was a teenager, Henderson explained, he wanted to be a doctor. The Holmes County high school didn’t have a working science lab, but Henderson graduated intending to major in biology. On his first day at Jackson State University, a historically Black school an hour away, he realized that his classmates had gone to schools with labs. Everyone else had dissected frogs or small mammals. Everyone else had poured chemicals into test tubes. Henderson abandoned his dream, switched to communications and eventually earned his Ph.D. But he never got over the humiliation.
“That’s why it’s time for us to do what we need to do,” Henderson announced. The district could get off the state’s F list. They could lure good teachers and ensure that no student ever experienced the embarrassment he had. All Holmes County had to do, Henderson said, was build a new high school.
A teenager loaded a slide that showed a confusing graph of numbers. The slide, Henderson explained, showed an estimate of what the bond would cost taxpayers. Homeowners would pay somewhere between $33 and $112 in extra property taxes each year, plus another $67 annual fee if they owned a car. Business owners would contribute more, and farmers would, too, though Henderson hadn’t listed how much the bond would cost people who owned land.
The crowd grumbled. The school Henderson wanted wouldn’t just have a science lab and a working HVAC system. It had a swimming pool, a football field and a theater where students could put on plays. The crowd wanted the amenities, but most believed they could not afford them. Though many people in the audience owned farmland, the per capita income in Holmes County was just $14,000 a year. Even a few hundred dollars felt like a stretch. What if they couldn’t afford to keep their land?
The county clerk, Earline Wright-Hart, strode to the front and grabbed the microphone. For years, she explained, businesses had been leaving Holmes. The county’s population had declined by 19 percent over the last two decades, to 17,000 from 21,000. A dollar store had filed for bankruptcy that week, and Wright-Hart didn’t expect a new shop to replace it. The few businessmen who expressed interest in opening a law practice or a medical clinic always changed their minds once they saw the schools.
“I get so sick of being asked, ‘Why y’all got them dilapidated schools?’” Wright-Hart said. “No economic development is going to come here, no factory is going to come here.”
A new school would inspire businesses to open, Wright-Hart told the crowd. It would reinvigorate the tax base, and it might persuade the white families who had abandoned the public schools to return. Though Holmes was 15 percent white, all but a handful of the county’s white students attended a private school that segregationists opened half a century earlier on Robert E. Lee Drive, depriving the public schools of the $5,522-per-pupil funding the state would have sent the district.
Several people spoke at once. Of course they wanted businesses and jobs, they said. Half the county spent an hour driving south to break down chickens or work the assembly line at Nissan. And they wanted white families to choose the public schools over the private one.
“But it ain’t going to happen,” a woman called out.
Henderson stepped back, quiet as the crowd murmured its agreement. He knew the woman was right. But Holmes did not have to wait for outside saviors, Henderson believed. If the community pooled its meager resources, maybe that would be enough for its kids.
Harvey Ellington longed for the future Henderson envisioned. He told the superintendent he wanted to study biotechnology at Xavier University of Louisiana, a small Catholic school in New Orleans. Xavier, a historically Black college, has in recent years graduated more Black students with degrees in biology and physics than any other institution in the country, and Ellington liked to imagine himself among their prestigious ranks. He worried, though, that Holmes would hold him back the way it once had Henderson. What if Xavier’s admissions counselors discovered he attended an F-rated school with no science lab? What if he made it to college, only to find himself hopelessly behind? He was only 15, too young to vote, but he wanted the lab Henderson had promised, so the teenager traveled the county with the superintendent in fall 2019, passing out buttons and asking his neighbors to pay for a new school.
Ellington knew that kids in other parts of the state learned in nicer buildings. He heard about a school near Jackson with an elevator and a college-size football stadium, and he knew that voters in Madison had approved their own $61 million bond a decade earlier, in part to build a high school. Holmes had even lost one of its best science teachers, LeShundra Young, to Madison.
Young grew up in Holmes County and returned after graduate school because she wanted to help her community — the epitome of “grow your own.” But she became frustrated trying to teach with few books and no supplies. One year, her class had to use wire hangers to make test-tube clamps for an advanced-placement biology experiment. Young didn’t want her own children to learn in those conditions, so she left. Soon after that she transferred to Madison, to a school with six labs and real, functioning equipment, Young won the national presidential award for excellence in math and science teaching.
“It literally hurt my heart to leave those kids, but I had to,” Young told me. “It was not the children. If I could have brought them with me, I would have. It was the lack of resources. You have to have something. If you’re already in a town that struggles the way it does, in a county that struggles the way it does, there has to be something to attract people to want to work there. And a building is just a building, but it’s a start.”
Holmes rejected a bond a few years before Henderson arrived, leaving district leaders to spend what money they did have on maintenance, not actual improvements. While wealthier districts were buying interactive whiteboards and the kind of science equipment Young left to find in Madison, Holmes was spending its budget on plumbers, roofers and temporary fixes to make the schools inhabitable.
School bonds are especially hard to pass in Mississippi because the state decided in the 1950s to begin requiring counties to win at least 60 percent approval. (Fewer than 10 states have requirements as strict as Mississippi’s.) In the 1980s and 1990s, Black residents sued the state in federal court, arguing that the supermajority rule particularly harmed Black students who attend school in communities where most of the white students attend private academies. Before desegregation, when the public schools were still majority white, most school bonds passed, the plaintiffs noted. That changed after white students abandoned the public system. Though Black voters continued to support school-bond measures at a rate of more than 70 percent, few districts had successfully passed a bond since desegregation.
A district court judge dismissed the complaint, arguing that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven that the law was racist. “It is a fact that whites own the majority of owner-occupied property (approximately 80 percent of value of all such property statewide), and thus may be less inclined to vote ‘yes’ to increase their property taxes,” the judge wrote. “But that does not provide a basis for concluding that ‘race’ is the reason for their voting behavior and suggests, instead, that self-interest may be the reason.”
The week Henderson announced his campaign, another rural, majority-Black county in the state tried and failed to pass a bond. Fifty-eight percent of voters agreed to finance an $8.75 million bond in the Leland School District, but it wasn’t enough.
Henderson never let himself doubt his district’s chances, but as the vote drew near, he started to hear things. A white woman called the radio station, offering to pay a Black person to record an ad against the bond. And one day, while Henderson was eating at the restaurant that his sister owned, a white man told a Black woman he wouldn’t support “that bond for a colored school.”
On Election Day, Henderson didn’t spot a single white person as he drove along Lexington’s busiest streets. The county’s Black residents, however, were everywhere. The bond was just one of a dozen lines on the ballot, and African Americans set up big parties outside polling stations. At home, Henderson spent hours telling the bus drivers and school-board members who called that he felt good about the district’s chances. He had won over key detractors in Durant. Dozens of people in Tchula, the county’s poorest town, had texted, promising their support. And a volunteer football coach had even released two R.&B. songs endorsing the bond, catchy tunes teenagers had been singing in the high school halls.
But when the county clerk finished counting that night, she told Henderson that he’d won 55 percent — a majority, but not a win.
Reporters at a Jackson-based news channel thought that the margin meant the bond had passed, and Holmes residents kept sending Henderson screenshots of their TVs, showing the green check of victory. “No,” Henderson replied to each. It didn’t matter that more than half of Holmes voters had agreed to raise their taxes. “We needed 60 percent.”
Eventually, Henderson’s phone buzzed with a message from Ellington: “We got it?”
Henderson swallowed hard, wiped his eyes, then hit reply. “No, son,” he typed. “We did not.”
Ellington seemed adrift after the vote. His drama teacher left the first week of the spring semester, and Henderson couldn’t find anyone to replace him, so Ellington spent the 80-minute class in the gym, watching wrestling on his phone and Googling pictures of England, imagining himself anywhere but Holmes.
In January, a few days after he turned 16, Ellington signed up to serve as the vice president for a new Black male mentorship club. The teenager skipped part of biology to attend the first meeting, but no one else showed, not even the president of the club, so Ellington waited in silence with an art teacher. Eventually, frustrated that he was missing his favorite class for what appeared to be no reason, Ellington pulled out a notebook and drafted a list of questions he hoped someone might answer.
• How can we raise money to improve our school funding?
• How can we get teachers to teach courses we don’t have here at Holmes County Central high school?
• What do we need to do to get more certified teachers?
Henderson still believed the district would never reach its potential without new buildings, but the system remained in danger of a state takeover, so in early 2020, he sent out a newsletter, warning residents that if they didn’t band together, they would lose control of the schools. “The state of Mississippi cannot have our district!” he wrote. “We must own it.”
Over the last two decades, Mississippi had taken control of more than 20 districts it deemed to be in crisis — including, briefly, Holmes County in 2006. In 2016, the state introduced a new program to take over districts that repeatedly fail to meet academic standards. Under that model, the state dissolves the local board, fires the superintendent, then absorbs the failing districts into what officials call the Achievement School District.
Other states have tried to improve schools this way but have not succeeded. In Tennessee, where officials won $49 million from Obama’s Race to the Top contest to design their Achievement School District, researchers found that schools in the turnaround program did not improve after six years. And when Michigan abandoned its program in 2017, six years after it began, two-thirds of the 15 schools the state took over remained in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s rankings.
Researchers have only begun to identify the reasons state-run districts fail, but a few trends have emerged: State takeovers tend to target districts whose students are largely poor and Black, and most efforts have not addressed the ways racism and poverty have set those children behind. Instead, takeovers rely on the idea that school failure is largely a problem of governance, and so, rather than doing the hard work of fixing the root causes, states simply send in new leaders.
State takeovers also haven’t fixed teacher shortages. Though Michigan and Tennessee recruited young people through Teach for America, researchers found that both state-run districts suffered from high turnover rates.
Mississippi began its Achievement District takeovers in the fall of 2019 with Yazoo City and Humphreys, two rural, majority-Black communities that border Holmes. Officials had considered including Holmes in its first round, but after the consolidation, they agreed to give the combined district a chance.
No one in Holmes seemed to view the reprieve as permanent. The district’s overall ranking had declined since the consolidation, and the high school, which earned a D and a 555 on the 1,000-point scale in 2018, slipped more than 100 points to an F in 2019. Only 10 percent of the high school’s 800 students passed the reading test, and just 3 percent were proficient in math. Residents talked about the takeover as if it were a lurking evil. If it happened, the community would lose its school board, and thus its say in how its schools were run. Anthony Anderson, a minister who served as the school-board president, told me that he felt as if he were “looking down the barrel of a gun. You know the next bullet coming out is going to be a takeover bullet.”
That January, Henderson introduced an initiative he believed would lift the high school’s score. Administrators called it “Power Hour.” School leaders identified 100 students they believed had the greatest ability to improve their state test scores. Some were failing; others had passed but needed one or two additional correct answers to earn a higher grade. Teachers then signed those kids up for extra tutoring.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina and Columbia University have panned this method, which they call “educational triage,” because it neglects the highest- and lowest-performing students, but Henderson was willing to try. The first tutoring session began at 9 a.m. An administrator sang off-key into the intercom, extolling the program’s virtues, but in the hallways, a few teachers rolled their eyes. Henderson hadn’t hired any additional instructors, so teachers had to give up their planning periods to staff the sessions.
When the bell rang, a social-studies teacher passed out a quiz to six students. The test was supposed to assess their knowledge of World War II and the Harlem Renaissance, but the teenagers seemed distracted. It was raining. The rooms were musty, and the hallway outside had a thin layer of water covering the linoleum. The Power Hour kids could hear their classmates, laughing and splashing down the halls.
By midmorning, both the high school and the middle school were starting to flood. On his way to lunch, Ellington passed a woman who told him she was a new substitute English teacher.
“Nice to meet you,” Ellington said. “How would you feel if we could get a new school and school funds and new businesses here?”
The teacher laughed. “I would love that. Y’all definitely need a new school, especially with what’s going on in the bathrooms.”
“The bathroom’s still not working?” Ellington asked. “That’s against the law to have us here.”
Bathrooms had broken down the week before after a clay pipe deteriorated. Maintenance crews had replaced the pipe, but now, the teacher explained to Ellington, as the rain overwhelmed the building’s plumbing, several toilets had stopped functioning again.
By 12:30 p.m., the high school’s water fountains were running brown, and every bathroom at the middle school had stopped working, too, so Henderson decided to close both schools for the day. A bell rang, and Ellington ambled into the wet hallways. Water splashed against his khakis, and other boys yelled and pushed their way to the front of the school. When Ellington made it out, he searched for his bus, but he didn’t see it.
Eventually, after the teenagers milled around the parking lot for half an hour, the principal came through screaming. The district didn’t have enough buses to release both the middle and high school students at once, he explained. “Move back to your A-block class now,” the principal shouted. “Move. Let’s go.”
Ellington headed inside, but when he reached his classroom, no other students were there.
All spring, Ellington texted complaints to Henderson. His algebra class didn’t have textbooks, so he spent half the period copying equations onto loose sheets of paper. The instructor tried to augment their lessons with online homework from Khan Academy, a nonprofit that offers free video tutorials, but Ellington didn’t have a computer or internet access at home, and he couldn’t figure out how to do the lesson on his phone, so he didn’t complete it. When the teacher scolded him, Ellington felt so embarrassed, he argued with her until she sent him to the principal’s office.
A few nights before spring break, Henderson saw Ellington at a round-table meeting, and he could see how crushed the teenager felt. He wasn’t getting a science lab. He couldn’t do his homework. Even part of the school day was a waste. “I just want out of Holmes County,” Ellington told him.
Henderson didn’t know how long it would take him to help Ellington. He might not find a drama teacher before the end of the semester, and the district probably wouldn’t build a new school before Ellington graduated, but Henderson promised the second half of the spring semester would be better.
Two weeks later, the coronavirus reached Mississippi.
Henderson knew that internet access was spotty in Holmes, but he had no idea how bad it was: When he surveyed the district’s families, he found that more than 75 percent of his students had no way to get online. Many teachers didn’t, either.
Like all impoverished school districts, Holmes receives federal money under a program called Title I. In a normal year, Holmes officials spend the extra $1,000 or so per student on tutors and teachers’ aides, but after the pandemic shuttered schools, Henderson reallocated some of those dollars to buy Chromebooks. By the end of March, he had passed out 1,300 tablets. He also turned six school buses into roving hot spots, but the infrastructure didn’t reach every family. The district had 3,000 students. Some families said they had several children competing to use one Chromebook, and each school bus hot spot broadcast only 100 feet, leaving much of the county without access.
While Ellington waited for his own Chromebook, he spent his days playing an Xbox wrestling game with his brothers and reading “The Hate U Give” and “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” He finally got a computer and a hot spot in mid-April, but none of Ellington’s teachers were doing live lessons. Instead, they told him to log onto Edgenuity, an online platform that offers prerecorded assignments.
Henderson used federal CARES dollars to buy more laptops and hot spots, and he kept school bus drivers employed by hiring them to deliver meals to students twice a day. The Guardian and ABC News covered his efforts, and people from as far away as Seattle and Minneapolis sent donations, but around Holmes, people took to Facebook to air their skepticism of him. Some had grown frustrated with Henderson during the school-bond campaign, and others resented him for demoting and firing their relatives. Two years into his tenure, the community no longer seemed to believe that Henderson could be their savior. A block of board members began shooting down every proposal he made. And in May, one resident sent Henderson a Facebook message, promising to have him assassinated so the district could get a new superintendent.
The message paralyzed Henderson. He spent his weekdays driving deserted roads in a Crown Victoria everyone knew was his. Someone could shoot him and never get caught. “My kids, my biological kids, could be fatherless,” he told me, “because I believed in a place like Holmes County.”
In July, two weeks before the 2020 fall semester, Henderson bought four fishing poles. He picked up Ellington and his brothers, then he drove them to a pond on his family’s land. Ellington looked around, wide-eyed, as they pulled up. Henderson’s farm was vast and green, and Ellington felt free in all that space. They walked up to the water, cast their lines in hopes of luring brim or white perch, then Henderson told Ellington he needed to tell him something important.
“I’m leaving,” he said. He’d found a new job in Chicago, overseeing a district of urban high schools just a few miles from his oldest daughter’s home.
Ellington could feel his face fall. His stomach hurt, and his heart did, too. “I had a dream about this,” he told Henderson. “I knew you were going to do this.”
Henderson and Ellington cast their lines again, and they waited. Ellington tried to be patient. They fished for two hours, and eventually, they reeled in their empty lines.
The district employed two interim superintendents during the pandemic. A state audit later found that half the students in some schools never logged on to their virtual classes. Some teachers didn’t, either.
Ellington tried to pay attention. The hot spot the district gave him worked well enough, as long as it wasn’t raining, but he found it hard to concentrate when he was taking care of his brothers. His English teacher never showed up on Zoom, and in November, Ellington learned on Facebook that the 25-year-old woman had died after contracting the coronavirus. Ellington was supposed to join a different English class, but no one told him how to log in, and when his grades for his nine-week report card came back, he discovered he’d failed. The district’s leaders didn’t find a new English teacher until February. Ellington spent his nights and weekends doing the makeup work the new teacher assigned, but he ended the school year with a D in English.
He earned Bs in his other classes, and he won student of the month three times his junior year, but he worried the English grade and his low A.C.T. score would keep him from qualifying for college scholarships. He realized during the pandemic that he couldn’t afford Xavier, but he hoped to earn enough money to enroll at Jackson State, the historically Black university Henderson attended. He had abandoned biology too, in favor of geography, a major that would allow him to see the world, if only through textbooks.
As his junior year came to a close, Ellington started to feel hopeful again. Soon, he would return to in-person learning. He could start fresh with a new superintendent. When he sent the email to Debra Powell, he really believed he had a plan to improve his school.
Powell didn’t respond for nearly two months. (She told me she inherited a mess and was busy prioritizing finding teachers.) When she replied in mid-July, she didn’t mention any of Ellington’s suggestions. Instead she told Ellington she’d decided to go “in a new direction” to give other students a chance to lead. Ellington was hurt and confused, but he decided to ask his principal if there were other opportunities to help. The principal said he would meet with the teenager, but a week later, the state accreditation board released a 372-page audit showing that since the consolidation, the district had violated 81 percent of the state’s process standards. Holmes County, the audit suggested, might have reached a state of emergency.
In early August, a few days before the start of Ellington’s senior year, the accreditation board and the state school board each met to decide the school district’s fate. Both meetings lasted more than four hours, and in them, state employees explained that the audit had uncovered some stark revelations.
Henderson, the interim superintendents and the school board had failed to provide “effective educational leadership,” auditors found. The district was financially unstable. Durant still didn’t have social-studies textbooks for half its students, and the school didn’t have science books for Grades K through 4. Two other elementary schools, Goodman-Pickens and S.V. Marshall, were using “various websites” to teach science — a method that had left Holmes with the lowest science proficiency in the state.
The high school stored its textbooks — most of which were out of date and in poor condition — in a utility closet next to mops, buckets and cleaning solutions. During the pandemic, auditors found, the school’s math and social studies teachers provided no instruction at all. (Ellington disputed this finding: He wasn’t sure how other classes fared, but his geometry teacher taught every virtual class, he said.)
Though the temperature hovered above 90 degrees in early August, most of the district’s schools didn’t have air-conditioning or the kind of upgraded ventilation equipment other districts had installed while students were learning at home. The board had only recently agreed to buy new HVAC systems — too late to install them before school started. Nearly a third of the district’s buses were out of service, and the rest had “significant” issues like inoperable brakes and turn signals and broken emergency doors and windows. The county still didn’t have enough qualified teachers. More than 60 percent either didn’t have a license or were teaching outside their subject area. “This district has been failing these kids from kindergarten all the way through graduation,” a lawyer for the state testified.
The Mississippi Board of Education agreed. Two days before the new school year, the board conceded that the consolidated district the state had created had reached a state of emergency. Mississippi would take over Holmes. The local school board would be dissolved, and Debra Powell would lose the job she had just started. A new interim superintendent would replace her.
It’s unclear whether the intervention will help. Since 2015, Mississippi has declared a state of emergency and taken over two other districts. One, a rural and majority-Black school district two hours north of Holmes, improved from a D to a C, but the other, a rural and majority-Black district two hours east of Holmes, remains an F. On the most recent state exams, students there scored lower than Holmes in both math and history.
Though many Holmes students went a year without learning, the pandemic may offer an unlikely opportunity for growth: Mississippi received more than $2.5 billion in federal relief to spend on its schools by September 2024. Holmes will get $29 million of it. The timeline for spending may be too short to build a new school, and the district can’t use the money to pay teachers’ recurring salaries, but it can use the federal relief to pay for technology, professional development and after-school programs.
When the school bus bumped down Ellington’s road in early August, he tried to remain optimistic. He had signed up for U.S. government and human anatomy, and he hoped to pull his G.P.A. up from a 3.4 to a 3.9. By the end of his second day, though, he started to worry that the state takeover had done little to change his circumstances. One of his classes didn’t have textbooks, and two others lacked teachers. Soon, he was spending half of most days in the gym with dozens of other kids, waiting without air-conditioning or instruction.
Ellington’s mom told him once that the district was in disrepair when she graduated in 1997. Henderson had experienced the same. Whole generations of Holmes students had suffered the way Ellington had, and it pained the boy to think his brothers might inherit the same broken system.
Sitting in the gym, sweating through his school uniform, Ellington told himself to hold on to the bit of hope he had left. The new superintendent hadn’t arrived yet. He wanted to believe that she could fix things, but he knew the work was too much for one person to do alone, and nine months hardly seemed long enough to make up for what he’d lost. His brothers were still young, though. Maybe, he thought, there would be time enough for them.
Casey Parks is a reporter from Monroe, La. She spent a decade at The Oregonian and has written for The New Yorker, Oxford American and The Nation. Her forthcoming book, “Diary of a Misfit,” won the 2021 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. Joshua Rashaad McFadden is an award-winning visual artist and assistant professor of photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology.