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

Little else is publicly known about Indianola Academy apart from the information the school promulgates on its website. As a private school, its students do not have to take the state's standardized tests (much to the chagrin of the town's public school students), though a student handbook on the school's website states that students should score in the top 30 percent on a student achievement test to gain admission.

Sammy Henderson, the academy's headmaster, never responded to a reporter's request to visit while in town. But he did answer several questions via e-mail. Henderson wrote that African-American enrollment at the school has risen to nine students this school year, and "we also have Hispanic, Indian, and Oriental students." Annual tuition, which includes money for books and other fees, ranges from $3,795 to $5,080, depending on the grade level. And the academy budgets money annually for minority scholarships, spreading word about their availability via newspaper advertisements and word-of-mouth, Henderson said.

IRS tax forms filed by Indianola Academy show the school has raised a modest amount for scholarships in recent years. In 2010, for instance, the school paid out $6,500 for "minority scholarships," according to those forms.

Tradition and history partly explain why the scholarships aren't more widely utilized: Black families know their children could be isolated and shunned at the academy, and those with the means and desire to avoid the public schools have long relied on other -- more historically welcoming -- private schools, including a tiny, nearly all-black Christian academy in Indianola.

But Indianola Academy is also highly selective and opaque in its recruitment and admissions processes for African-Americans, according to public school students and teachers. Applicants have to be top students and submit multiple letters of recommendation, said a Sunflower County Freedom Project participant whose younger brother thought about applying. And some black students appear to be recruited at least partly because of their athletic abilities, said Sam Wallis, a current Gentry teacher, and Katie Cooney, a former one. Henderson denies that claim, writing that several of the academy's African-American students do not even play sports. He said a "minority scholarship committee" reviews the applications and awards money to those who "meet the qualifications," although he did not spell out what those qualifications are.

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.

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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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