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This story about Avoyelles Parish was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger's newsletter.
FIRST STEP TO THE MIDDLE CLASS: More than 27 million Americans age 25 or older don't have a high school diploma or GED, the basic credential needed to qualify for nearly 80 percent of jobs in this country. The Hechinger Report traveled to three counties with very high numbers of adults without a high school credential to learn about the obstacles schools and families must overcome to provide and obtain this essential first step to a middle-class life. The three counties, all in the rural South, are profoundly different in terms of race and ethnicity — and in their experiences of racism and segregation. Yet they face many of the same challenges, including low funding for schools, intergenerational poverty and few well-paid career opportunities, to motivate students. They also share one abiding theme: Parents know the risk of dropping out of school and want desperately for their children to get through high school and beyond in their education.
MARKSVILLE, La. — On a chilly March morning, Liza Jacobs stood in the Marksville High School parking lot, bullhorn in hand, herding straggling students into the low brick building before the 7:30 a.m. bell.
She followed the last of the teenagers into the school, past the metal detector, still clutching her bullhorn. A teenager rushed down the hallway to his first class. "You better take that hat off your head," she called after him, smiling through the stern command.
"Why are you tardy?" she called to another as the bell rang. "I'm almost on time, ma'am," the girl answered as she broke into a jog.
Jacobs became principal at the school, which serves grades 7 through 12, last fall and has been a teacher and administrator for more than 20 years in Avoyelles Parish. A former marine who often works 14-hour days, she raised four children, for many years on her own, and is skeptical of excuses.
Getting students to class is just the first step toward Jacobs' ultimate goal: increasing the school's graduation rate. Avoyelles has one of the lowest percentages in the country of African American adults with a high school diploma — 61 percent. They are among the 27 million adults age 25 and older of all races in the United States who haven't graduated from high school or gotten their GED, even as the number of jobs that don't require these basic credentials are shrinking. High school dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed and earn thousands of dollars less per year than people with higher levels of education.
Nationally, black students who have the same family income as white students are much less likely to graduate from high school.
"It's like a legal segregation."
The economic futures of African Americans without a high school diploma are especially bleak. Black 25- to 34-year-olds on average earn about $21,000 annually compared to about $29,000 for whites.
In Avoyelles, these trends have become deeply entrenched. In 2012, 57 percent of "minority" students (almost all African American) graduated from Avoyelles Parish high schools, lower than the percentage of adults with a diploma. By 2018, that number had increased to 75 percent, but was still far below the white graduation rate of 90 percent. Jacobs, who graduated from Marksville in 1991, believes she can help level the playing field for the kids who are being left behind. But she's not naïve about what stands in the way.
The reasons for these racial disparities are both obvious and complex. In this mostly rural, central Louisiana parish street names like Shirley Plantation Road and buildings that used to house segregation academies mark the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Segregation has left many black families clustered in dilapidated houses while white families occupy freshly painted manors across town. The poverty rate for African Americans here — 41 percent — is more than twice that of whites.
Stanley Celestine Jr., 19, decided to run for school board last year because of the inequalities he witnessed at his hometown schools. In 2017, he graduated from the Louisiana School for Agricultural Sciences, a charter school with one of the highest graduation rates in the parish. The school requires an interview and considers students' academic records before admitting them. But before that he was a student at Cottonport Elementary, which is majority black, almost entirely low-income and has struggled for years to improve its academic performance.
"I was constantly watching some of my peers who did not have the opportunity that I did," said Celestine, who is African American and was elected with 65 percent of the vote. "There was a revolving door of teachers at their schools, and my friends were just as capable as I was of going to the school I went to."
Cottonport, like most of the majority-black schools in Avoyelles, had an extremely high rate of teacher turnover last year — more than 40 percent of teachers didn't return. LaFargue Elementary has the lowest percentage of black students in the parish and the lowest rate of teacher turnover — only 10 percent left last year. At the high school with the highest percentage of black students, 38 percent of the teachers left last year, compared with just 15 percent at Avoyelles Public Charter, which has the lowest percentage of black students among the parish schools teaching grades 9-12.
Celestine said he's seen improvement but wants the district to better support students who are struggling with difficult issues in their lives and at home, which can be exacerbated by the impact of poverty.
"I really think it means doing whatever it takes, if it means deploying more financial resources, sending our teachers to meaningful professional development that's going to allow them to be responsive to some of the traumas that our students undergo," said Celestine, adding that there are schools that would benefit greatly from having a psychiatrist or in-house counselor.
He said that many of the new school board members (seven of the nine are new this year) agree that policies that better address students' social and emotional needs can serve as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions.
The parish's African American students have long been subject to harsher disciplinary consequences within school walls. Avoyelles High School has the highest expulsion rate for students of color in Louisiana. Twenty-two percent were expelled last year. The school also issued out-of-school suspensions to close to half of its students of color. Bunkie High School suspended students at a similar rate. (High expulsion and suspension rates are linked to high drop-out rates.)
"For the most part we are starting to see less of a strong racial divide, but there is still some work that needs to be done," said Celestine, who is also working toward a degree in sociology from McNeese State University.
Jerica Washington remembers her high school years here with a mix of pride and regret. Washington, now 29, is black and dropped out in 11th grade. She used to work at a nursing home, but without a diploma she couldn't move into the better paying jobs there. She sometimes does hair out of her home. Her husband works nights at Walmart as a forklift driver. She wants an easier life for her kids.
Her daughters Kalis and Samiya are in eighth and ninth grade at Marksville. Kalis made the honor roll last year. "They need to get an education," Washington said. "That's the root of everything."
She is hoping that, with Jacobs as the new leader at Marksville High, her children will get their diplomas and then go on to college. "I wish I had stayed in school," she said. "I made good grades and I was smart. They need to know that's not the route to go. It makes a complete difference in your life."
All of the parish's education issues are exacerbated by a low level of funding. The parish was 65th among 69 parishes in spending per student last year, at $9,727 annually. The national average was $12,201 in 2017, according to the most recent Census data.
Louisiana gives extra money to districts with low-income students, but it also rewards those that collect more in local taxes. Wealthier districts raise more from their property and sales taxes, and they also get extra from the state for doing so.
"I want to be the principal at a school where kids go who nobody else wants, if you get what I'm saying."
African Americans in parishes that spend the most per pupil — up to $6,400 more than Avoyelles — tend to graduate at higher rates.
In Avoyelles, school administrators say the budget shortfall means limitations on how much they can pay their teachers, and being near the bottom of the pay scale makes it difficult to attract and retain good ones. In a neighboring parish teachers can make over $4,000 more a year. A move to a parish up north can mean an additional $15,000.
"Personnel. That's the number one obstacle," said Blaine Dauzat, who became Avoyelles superintendent in 2015. "Poverty is number two, and it's not even close to number one. We can overcome poverty, but we need teachers to do it."
Although outside factors such as poverty make a difference in how students do in school, most experts agree that good teachers have a significant impact on whether students stay on track academically.
In Avoyelles in 2017-18, in addition to the high turnover rates, about 20 percent of the instructors either weren't certified in the subject they were teaching or weren't certified at all.
Some schools in the district routinely employ substitutes — who need only have a high school diploma and pass a drug test to be hired — when they can't find permanent teachers. At several schools with high numbers of low-income and black students, some classes have been taught by rotating substitutes for an entire year.
When Jacobs received her staff list in the summer of 2018, she had 43 teachers and 10 vacancies. She filled classrooms with four full-time substitutes, who had bachelor's degrees but no training in teaching. The six other instructors didn't have college degrees at all.
She said most of her new instructors were deeply committed to the students and were developing their skills, "but it is exhausting, because in the middle of running a school, and trying to get the most out of the seasoned people that I do have, I am also in the middle of teaching teachers how to teach," she said, her voice strained with exasperation. "It is just insane just how much energy and time and brain bandwidth I have to use up just to train these people."
In Avoyelles, African Americans comprise 30 percent of the population overall, but roughly 50 percent of the public school population and are the majority at several of the area's lowest-performing schools.
Locals worry that some families' ability to opt out of the traditional schools has diverted resources from the kids who need the most help. Two charter schools opened in 2000 and have been attracting white students away from the traditional schools ever since. Almost two-thirds of the charter schools' students are white, compared with less than half at the traditional schools.
The growth of charter schools has engendered bitterness among much of the public school district's staff. Admission to one charter is supposed to be done by lottery, but there is widespread skepticism about the process, and whether it is "cherry picking" white students at the expense of African Americans. The Louisiana School for the Agricultural Sciences interviews students to decide who it wants to enroll. In 2008, a judge ordered the charter school to take measures to make its admissions process more racially equitable.
Jacobs believes her children can succeed at Marksville, but she is also frustrated that a third charter school opened its doors this fall.
"It's like a legal segregation," she said of the charters, sitting behind a desk piled with papers.
In Avoyelles, black residents are all too familiar with racial inequities between their parish's schools. In 1967, 13 years after the Supreme Court declared separate schools to be inherently unequal, the federal government charged that the parish had maintained a segregated system. At that time, only 1 percent of white teachers taught in black schools.
"Personnel. That's the number one obstacle …We can overcome poverty, but we need teachers to do it."
The lawsuit alleged that majority-black schools had worse facilities and teachers than white schools, fewer extracurricular activities and inferior transportation. The complaint also asserted that the parish allowed white students who lived in neighborhoods with majority black schools to "zone jump" to white schools. And very few black students attended majority white schools, even if they lived within their zones.
A desegregation plan was put in place in 1969. All-black schools were closed and others were consolidated into white ones, but white resistance remained strong. While changes in enrollment practices meant students were more evenly distributed by race in some schools, several that served mostly black students remained that way.
White families also began to leave the system altogether. In 1979, 65 percent of Avoyelles public school students were white. In 2019, the share of white students in the parish's traditional public schools was 46 percent.
The parish is home to four parochial schools, which enroll mostly white students. St. Mary's Assumption School is a short walk from the majority-black, low-income Cottonport Elementary School. On any given school day, white parents sit in a line of quietly humming cars and SUVs waiting to pick up their children from St. Mary's. Those students are shepherded one by one into cars that empty out onto a horseshoe-shaped road that traces the Bayou Rouge, a waterway that used to ferry loads of cotton from local plantations. It now cordons off a white sliver of Cottonport stocked with lush lawns and expansive homes.
In 1987, there were still five schools in the parish that were 80 percent white, four that were 90 percent white, three that were more than 95 percent white and one without a single black child, according to a petition filed in a federal court by Allen Holmes, whose son attended Avoyelles schools. In 1988, another desegregation order closed five schools and cut the high school grades in five others, in an effort to chip away at the continued racial inequities, but those efforts also met resistance.
"Segregation is not about the lack of contact with other races. It's about the resources that are available."
In 2008, at a time when courts were releasing hundreds of school districts from oversight, the Avoyelles school board asked the court to lift its order. But unlike other districts in the South, Avoyelles' request was denied, because of the district's ongoing inequities, including in facilities, curriculum and student discipline, and because it had no clear plan to meaningfully desegregate the schools. In the same period, one of the charter schools, the Louisiana School for Agricultural Sciences, was still 14 percent black even though African Americans made up 44 percent of the three traditional high schools.
That charter has since increased its black enrollment to 33 percent, and two of the other high schools are now well integrated, but some of the elementary schools remain sharply divided. Bunkie Elementary School has gotten more segregated, dropping to 17 percent white from 25 percent in 2007.
Last fall the desegregation order was fully lifted, but for the black residents who went to school during the most divided decades — with the curriculum, resources and discipline differences inherent to that segregation — and who still lack a high school diploma, the damage was done.
Advocates for desegregation emphasize that the problem is not simply the physical separation of black and white students. "Segregation is not about the lack of contact with other races," said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, assistant professor at Duke University. "It's about the resources that are available."
As angry as the inequities make Jacobs, she is proud of what her staff has done. "It's the default school, they can't get into a charter, they come here … and I'm not at all worried about that, because I want to be the principal at a school where kids go who nobody else wants, if you get what I'm saying, I'm fine with that," Jacobs said, whose youngest child is at Marksville.
But a new challenge could make closing gaps for her kids even more difficult.
In March, the Avoyelles school board voted to reduce the school week from five to four days, which some educators backed and others strongly opposed. The school day will be longer, so instructional hours will be the same, but parents will have to find somewhere for their children to go on Mondays. Supporters argued that the parish would be able to attract more qualified teachers by offering a shorter work week, since they can't compete by raising salaries.
Detractors think having students unoccupied could lead to trouble. Nationally, the highest arrest rates for teenagers are between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., after school lets out, and African Americans are five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
There are few programs or community centers where young people will be able to go during the day, although a juvenile jail has just been completed in the parish.
Although Louisiana students are required to be in school until they're 18, some expelled students opt out of the regular schools and try to earn their GED at Avoyelles' adult learning center. The three-room building, with moss-covered clapboard siding, is set back from the street on a gravel road next to the school bus depot. State cuts to adult education programs mean there is only one full-time employee for the entire parish.
In March, about 12 students sat around four long tables for an English lesson. Most of the students were African American and about half had been expelled from local high schools.
Kelcie Simon was sitting in the back of the room, glancing often at her phone, scrolling through messages with long pale blue nails. She was expelled from Avoyelles High School last year when she was in ninth grade for fighting, she said. In fifth grade she was expelled from a parochial school, for talking back to teachers. As the only black girl in her class, she said, she felt teachers were especially harsh with her. She wants to get her GED as quickly as possible so she can go to cosmetology school. Her mom is pushing her to get a college degree.
"She just wants us to have a good life," said Kelcie. "If I want money, I gotta make it through here first."
Avoyelles' education results improved more than any other parish in the state between 2015 and 2018, and for the past two years, its overall high school graduation rate was above the state average. Still, the rate for African American students was 3 percentage points below the state African American average, and about 15 points below the parish's white average.
Marksville High School is part of that upward trend. When Jacobs took over at Marksville, both white and black graduation rates were below the state average, and she was distressed by what she saw happening in the classrooms and halls.
She asked teachers to stay for extra training during the summer. They worked on classroom management and laid out procedures to make sure the mechanics of the school, such as scheduling, attendance and disciplinary policies, ran smoothly. She met with the veteran teachers, listened to what they thought could be improved, and then paired them with novices for coaching.
She also added more clubs for students, since there was limited time during the day for electives. "I'm a big believer in the arts in itself and as a motivator," she said. "It helps to have things the kids are interested in outside the academic classes."
She said many students came into ninth grade unprepared for high school and that's where the most students get stuck, or lost. So, this year, she instituted summer school for seventh and eighth graders.
She's determined to ensure that the children and grandchildren of residents who didn't make it through high school forge a different future. Some parents have noticed the change.
"I was constantly watching some of my peers who did not have the opportunity that I did."
"At one point last year, I wanted to take her out of here," said Kandus Walter, whose daughter Katelyn was being bullied at Marksville High. "I came in, and they listened and this year is a breeze. She's happy. She's doing well."
Katelyn, who is in tenth grade in the fall, plans to go to college after she graduates. "You have to have a degree to get a job and if you have a job then you can have money," she said confidently. "If I have money I can save and then I can do what I want to do."
Her mother looked with her with a mix of surprise and pride. "Are you my child? That was so good."
"I take a speech class," Katelyn replied, with an eye roll and a smile, thinly hiding her pleasure at her mom's pride.
This story about Avoyelles Parish was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger's newsletter.