A Separate School for Low-Income Students?

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Mississippi’s Oxford School system is considering a radical approach to combat the achievement gap in the school district.

As defined by an article published on The Charger, the achievement gap refers to the “observed, persistent disparity of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and gender.”

“We have long had a problem with the achievement gap,” Superintendent Brian Harvey said. “We have a lot of smart kids and because there is not a private school or other real viable options this creates a gap where we have the people who are high achieving students and then the low achieving students. We have one of the largest gaps in the state.”

In hopes of solving the issue, Harvey invited Dr. John Hodge, founder of the Urban Learning and Leadership Center (ULLC), to Oxford over the summer. They discussed the possibility of creating a separate school for students who qualify for free or reduced lunches in the district.

“There is a correlation between achievement and poverty,” Harvey said.

Thirty-six percent of students in the district are eligible for free lunches and 4.2 percent are eligible for reduced lunches.

The district is considering a model that would create an opt in school using similar ideas as An Achievable Dream Schools, an institution that opted to implement ULLC’s policies. There, students attend classes for 8 hours a day and attend school for 210 days out of the year. Their curriculum consists of “intensive reading programs, accelerated math courses, and mandatory etiquette classes.”

In addition, everyone who qualifies for free or reduced lunches would choose to be opted in to the program.

But Harvey’s plan doesn’t come without controversy. Critics argue the model is a form of segregation, a point the superintendent acknowledges as valid.

“It is a conversation we need to have, and I’m not scared of it,” Harvey said. “Hopefully they will see what my motivation is. I certainly don’t want to go back to separate but equal. In reality though, this isn’t separate but equal; it may be separate but more.”

For Harvey poverty, not race, is the issue.

“There is nothing that says that you have to be Black to go to this school,” Harvey said. “This is a socioeconomic issue. We have poor white people. We have poor African-Americans. It, however, is a little bit touchier in the South because of the history we have.”

The district is considering many different options besides the ULLC model, and the school board has not voted on any of the proposed plans.

“Before we make any decisions, a group from here will visit Virginia to see ULLC’s program in action,” School Board President, Marion Barksdale said. “We will look at other options as well, and compare outcomes. We have a lot more research to do.”