Murrah teacher Sarah Ballard teaching her 10th grade APAC English class. Photo by Kaitlyn Fowler.
A few months ago I walked into the Asthma and Allergy clinic on Lakeland to get my monthly allergy shot. I slid my ID card through the slot and sat down, right as the only other patient in the waiting room, an older white woman, struck up a conversation. After the initial pleasantries, she questioned, “What school do you go to?”
“Murrah.” I watched her face fall before she tried to make up for it.
“Oh...So how do you...like it there?”
“I love it,” I replied, “The teachers and the classes are amazing.”
She didn’t respond.
I didn’t tell her that last year our valedictorian went to Yale on a full ride. I didn’t tell her that in my junior class, at least one person has a 34 on the ACT and at least two have a 31.
I didn’t tell her that our speech and debate team, our literary magazine, our choir, our band, our theatre troupe and more are known and respected across the state, and in some cases, across the nation and across the world.
I didn’t tell her that one of our recent graduates started a very successful business before she graduated.
I didn’t tell her that every year we have students recognized on the national level by Scholastic for their art or writing.
I didn’t tell her that there are always JPS students volunteering around the city.
There are a lot of things that I could’ve said, but that I didn’t say. I probably should have fought harder to defend my school than I did. It’s hard, though, because no one listens to your story of your school when your school is being threatened with a state takeover.The threat of a state takeover is no longer as immediate as it was a few months ago; the governor, the mayor, the Kellogg foundation, and JPS have about a year to achieve and complete the district’s Corrective Action Plan (CAP) before the Mississippi Department of Education will again review the district and potentially attempt another takeover.
A study performed by the Kellogg foundation discovered that a little over 6% of the students in JPS are homeless -- that’s 4,400 kids who don’t have a home. There are 1,500 disabled kids and 1,000 in the foster care system or a similar situation.
Yumeka Rushing, a representative from Kellogg, says, “You can’t perform well if you’re hungry and don’t know where you’re going to go or sleep when the school bell rings at 3:30.”
The majority of us, myself included, are lucky enough that we don’t have to worry about from where our next meal will come or where we can sleep with a roof over our head, but there are people around us, sitting in the desk next to ours in class, whose minds are completely occupied with these concerns. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to pay attention in class, either. With 60 or 90 degree classrooms -- there is no in between -- and less than a class set of textbooks, it is no wonder that some of our students are struggling.
A lack of resources, supplies such as soap or toilet paper, reliable transportation and appetizing food is exhibited through low grades and test scores. A small mouse skittering along the window ledge is a humongous distraction. Malfunctioning smartboards and projectors sometimes do more harm than good. Having our bags searched when we walk into school in the morning and corralling students into the gym until the first bell rings makes the students feel like prisoners; when a person is treated like a prisoner, they’re more likely to act like one and misbehave.
The worst thing, however, is being told over and over again that, because our district and our schools are ‘failing,’ we as students are also failing by association. An outsider’s perception of JPS and the students within it are pushed onto the community, the district leaders, the teachers, the parents, and the students. Most of the time, those perceptions of the district as a whole are anything but good.
The schools all have excellent extracurricular programs, and inside of those extracurriculars, the various Jackson schools have great reputations. Just a month or two ago, at a cross-country race, a student from Gautier High School was injured during the run, and two competitors encouraged him and helped him reach the finish line. The two competitors were both JPS high schoolers, one representing Callaway and one Forest Hill. Wingfield High School showcases a talented robotics team. Hope Credit Union joined forces with Provine High School to start a student-run branch. Murrah High School’s choir is internationally known and their speech and debate team goes to the national competitions every year. Jefferson Davis Magnet Elementary School -- soon to be renamed after President Barack Obama -- is the best elementary school in the state. FEMA selected a JROTC student from Jim Hill as one of the 15 members on the 2017 Youth Preparedness Council (YPC).
We are not failing. Our schools, like all schools, produce a few bad students, but we also produce many excellent ones. When the debate over what to do with JPS is being tossed around over our heads, we stay in the position we’re in now. Kids are the least resistant to change when they feel like they have -- and they do have -- a say in what that change looks like. As you’re debating about what to do with our schools and our teachers and our lives, consider talking to us, the students, who have more stake in this fight than anyone else. These schools are our future, and we are the future of the world.