Wednesday, November 1, 2017
JACKSON The Jackson Public School District is now in the hands of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Gov. Phil Bryant's office and the City of Jackson. The four entities entered a memorandum of understanding last week to develop an action plan that involves the community as well as national experts in studying the needs of the school district and determining possible solutions.
The unlikely coalition came soon after JPS received its second "failing" grade in the 2017 accountability results, released this month. The Republican governor could have signed a takeover order, which the Mississippi Board of Education recommended in September, but opted to partner with Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation instead.
The governor told reporters last week that signing the takeover order would have been the easy thing to do—but not necessarily the right answer.
"I don't think you're ever going to see the revitalization of Jackson if we don't have a good public-school system," Bryant told reporters after speaking at the annual MEC Hobnob Mississippi.
"If we can't get that done, you won't see people moving here. You won't see industry growing here, and that needs to happen. I think at some point we're going to have a revitalization of this capital city, and I want to be a part of that."
A commission, made up of a diverse group of stakeholders, will lead the coalition, called the "Better Together" initiative. Last week, at a press conference, Lumumba said the governor, the City and Kellogg would each get five appointments.
Rhea Williams-Bishop, the director of Mississippi programs for the Kellogg Foundation, and program officer Yumeka Rushing, told the Jackson Free Press, however, that the commission structure is still in the works, noting that the number of commissioners is not set in stone.
Rushing said Kellogg is advocating for representation of the community on the commission including "teachers, parents with children in the school district, administrators, philanthropy, business, faith leaders, that type of thing."
Kellogg's Role, Explained
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has lately been in the business of investing in school reforms, and in May, the foundation made a $51-million investment in Battle Creek, Mich., public schools for a five-year period, mlive.com reported.
Williams-Bishop and Rushing said that while the foundation's work in its home state of Michigan is similar, the Jackson project will be distinct.
For now, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation will fund three specific parts of this agreed-to plan to help JPS: the study, the community-engagement effort, and the experts who will come in and discuss best practices and model development.
Once the commission is in place, the foundation will be tasked with engaging the community and hiring a group to conduct a gap analysis of the school district to determine what is missing and needed. The Mississippi Department of Education completed a year-long investigative audit of JPS in August, focused on state accreditation violations, but this study would go much deeper, Rushing said.
"The (MDE) audit is a slice of information, and it's actually a slice of information against a slice of time. ... It's good information, and we need to know what it said, but it's not enough for us to really be able to understand the disconnects that are causing us, even with philanthropic investment and lots of partnership, not to be able to move the needle for children," she said.
"So we need a more holistic picture of not just what's going on in schools but also what's happening in community."
The idea for a comprehensive study of JPS did not happen overnight. The Kellogg Foundation staff had discussed an in-depth gap analysis long before MDE published the investigative audit or initiated the takeover process. Rushing said Kellogg staff had discussed strategies with former Superintendent Cedrick Gray in fall 2016, and after he resigned, they began speaking with Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray about it.
The study would answer several questions about the problems that plague the state's second-largest school district and lead to a roadmap for fixing them.
The commission will engage Jackson community members to see what they want from their school system and what challenges they face. Kellogg has proposed that the community outreach include a canvassing effort, as well as listening sessions, key informant interviews and a strategy for youth to engage in the process.
Once the study is complete, which could take up to a year or so, the contractor will publish the report. The commission will then be tasked with deciding how to address the actions listed in the report—and who will pay for them.
Other funders who have expressed interest in helping JPS could get involved at that time if the independent study's suggested actions align with their work.
"I think that we have a lot of resources, when you look at the nonprofit landscape and the local philanthropy and national philanthropy and the resources that the school system has, so why are we failing?" Rushing said. "And that's really the question we're trying to answer by having some experts come in and help us diagnose and give us some ideas what's working in some other places."
MDE: Involved or Not?
The Mississippi Department of Education is not a part of the MOU, and after the coalition announced its plans for Jackson Public Schools late last week, State Superintendent Carey Wright said she stands by her agency and the state board's takeover recommendation.
"The governor has made a decision not to declare a state of emergency and to form a coalition to pursue another way to address this crisis. As of today, the MDE has not been asked to be part of this coalition," Wright said in a statement last week after the official coalition announcement.
"The Jackson Public School District is still required to develop a corrective action plan to submit to the State Board of Education for approval. The plan must clearly outline how the district will correct all accreditation violations in all 58 schools."
JPS is one of 18 districts on probation for violating accreditation standards, and the list of violations is lengthy for the district. This means the district, which is in the midst of finishing a separate corrective action plan (called a CAP), will have to submit another CAP in January because it is still on state probation.
Williams-Bishop and Rushing told the Jackson Free Press that Wright was aware of the approach that the foundation planned on taking in the district and that they are looking forward to MDE's ideas and solutions to help JPS move forward. Both Kellogg Foundation representatives said the relationship with MDE is not adversarial from their perspective and that conversations about MDE's role and involvement in the process are ongoing.
The foundation has reached out to the department since they released their statement last week, Rushing said.
In court, attorneys representing MDE asked the judge to consider a lawsuit filed by parents after the takeover process moot, citing the MOU announced last week. Attorneys representing MDE included the MOU in court documents. They asked the plaintiffs to dismiss the complaint entirely, citing the MOU.
In the meantime, the remaining members of the JPS Board of Trustees willingly resigned as a result of the agreement, but Lumumba and the Jackson City Council will have to appoint seven new school board members to control the district. JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray will remain at the helm of JPS.
On Monday, the mayor said he would be naming his appointments "in short order" but made no further comments.