In Southern Towns, 'Segregation Academies' Are Still Going Strong

The academy, like other private schools, is eligible for federal money through what are known as Title programs that flow through public school districts. Indianola school district officials say the academy has received about $56,000 in Title II money for professional development over the last two years.

But apart from that exchange of money, there's little formal or informal interaction between the academy and the public school system, say Indianola residents.

Wallis, a New York native who attended public schools in Westchester County, expected to encounter segregation when he moved to Indianola in 2011 to teach in the public schools. But he had not anticipated such a laissez-faire attitude toward it.

"When I taught Plessy v. Ferguson, I offered it up that separate is not equal. I said it was one of the worst decisions in American history," he said. "But several of the students said, 'Why? That sounds okay.'"

Sinkholes and Low Scores

Compared to Indianola Academy, Gentry High School is an open book, its academic struggles exposed to the world. While there's some modest racial integration at Indianola's public elementary schools, by high school all but a few white students have departed. Ninety-eight percent of Gentry's students are black, one percent are Hispanic, and one percent are white. A plaque at the school's entrance states that Gentry was erected in 1952 as part of South Sunflower County's "special consolidated school district for colored."

The campus is made up of several worn buildings, which means that students have to walk outdoors between many of their classes. Since the outdoor drainage and sewage systems are outdated, sinkholes dot the walkways; when it rains, students and teachers can find themselves wading through foot-deep floodwaters.

Even Gentry's current students believe white county leaders deliberately built a partially outdoors campus 60 years ago, after a fire destroyed the previous school building, because they hoped it would deter black students from coming to school in the rain or cold. "They didn't want black kids to get an education," said Brown.

Gentry has struggled with test scores since the state's accountability system began in the 1990s: Last year, 56 percent of students at the school had passing scores in algebra, 51 percent in English, 42 percent in history, and 17 percent in biology.

But students like Brown believe the poor scores are at least partly because the school lacks the resources it needs to be successful. Students sometimes swelter in classrooms without working air-conditioning during the hottest months and they can shiver without enough heat during the coldest. In some classes, the teenagers cannot take textbooks home because teachers fear they will get lost. Computers crash constantly because of low bandwidth. In Wallis' first year at Gentry (2011-12), he inherited government textbooks identifying the latest U.S. president as George H.W. Bush.

"The school needs to be torn down and rebuilt altogether," says Brown.

Her classmate, 16-year-old Primus Apolonio, says poorly behaved students also keep Gentry down -- partly by scaring away the teachers. Of the six young instructors brought to Gentry in the fall of 2011 through the alternative recruitment program, Teach For America, Wallis was the only one to return for a second year. Others left for personal reasons, or because of frustration with the job, according to Gentry staff. Teach for America participants typically make two-year commitments to teach in a high-needs school.

"The students are disrespectful to the point where the teachers don't stay," said Apolonio. "And the school [administration] does not do anything but paddle them and send them back to class." (Corporal punishment has long been legally employed by Indianola's school district staff, as in other parts of the state. Earl Watkins, the "conservator" recently appointed by the state to oversee the school district, wrote in an e-mail that teachers have also been trained in other discipline strategies. "Because corporal punishment has been a practice for many years in the district, professional development must precede the reduction/phase-out of it," Watkins wrote.)

But Apolonio agrees with Brown that students would behave better if they felt like the community placed more value on their education. "During the winter it gets cold and the heaters don't work in the classrooms," he said. "Of course the kids are going to get more disruptive."

Gentry and Indianola Academy do not play each other in interscholastic sports; academies typically play other academies. Yet throughout most its history -- and for reasons that remain the subject of urban legend in town -- Indianola Academy has maintained control of a large football field adjacent to the old public junior high school (which now houses the district's early childhood center), on land town leaders say is actually privately owned by the American Legion. Instead of sharing the field, the academy leaders put their logo, IA, on the buildings like territorial markings. There's also a six-foot barbed wire fence around the field's perimeter: a stark reminder that outsiders should stay away.

Two Communities, Two Narratives

Indianola, like other segregated communities across the country, is defined not only by two school systems and two sides of town, but by two competing narratives that attempt to explain segregation's stubborn persistence.

According to one narrative, white leaders and residents starved the public schools of necessary resources after decamping for the academy, an institution perpetuated by racism. According to the opposing narrative, malfeasance and inept leadership contributed to the downfall of the public schools, whose continued failings keep the academy system alive.

Hury Minniefield is a purveyor of the former narrative. He was one of the first black students to integrate the town's public schools in 1967 through a voluntary -- and extremely limited -- desegregation program. He and his two younger brothers spent a single academic year at one of the town's white schools. "Because the blacks were so few in number, we didn't interfere with the white students too much and never did hear the 'n word' too much," he said.

Despite his unique personal history, Minniefield does not believe the schools in Indianola will ever truly integrate. "It has not been achieved and it will likely never be achieved," he said. "It's because of the mental resistance of Caucasians against integrating with blacks. ... Until the white race can see their former slaves as equals, it will not happen."

Steve Rosenthal, the mayor, takes a different view. He argues that many white families have no problem sending their children to school with black students, but choose Indianola Academy because the public schools are inferior. His two children, both in their 20s, graduated from the academy, where he believes they received a strong education. "I would not have had a problem sending them to public schools had the quality been what I wanted," he said, adding a few minutes later, "If there's mistrust, it's the black community toward the whites."

Rosenthal and Minniefield also have divergent views on what led to the public schools' decline.

The white community "would prefer not to pay a dime to the public schools," said Minniefield. "It's had a devastating effect on resources and the upward mobility of the community."

Rosenthal is not deaf to such arguments, agreeing that the Gentry campus should be updated or replaced. However, he cites mismanagement as well. When the state took over the schools in 2009, the district reportedly employed dozens of unnecessary employees, he says. "The old saying was that even the secretaries had secretaries," he said. "I don't think funding was our entire problem."

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Sarah Carr is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the book Hope Against Hope.

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