Mississippi Parents and Students Hold Public Schools Accountable

Last Updated: July 12, 2007

It is an article of faith in some parts of the country and in many communities that the local rural school is working hard to secure the achievement and life opportunities of all its students. In many places that faith is justified.

But not everywhere.

Indianola, Mississippi is one of those places where parents and students in public school must work hard, continuously, to push the schools to educate students and to hold the schools accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. Powerful local interests, with the direct and indirect backing of state and national forces, have worked to deny political, social, economic, and educational opportunities to a majority of local residents, specifically African-Americans.

One of the many places African-American parents feel they must advocate on behalf of their children is in school disciplinary practices. Parents feel that a high percentage of students are suspended or expelled with little or no evidence of student misbehavior and without regard for the impact on the students' education.      

In Indianola, parents are taking responsibility for this situation. The Indianola Parent Student Group (IPSG) was organized, in large part, to help make the schools better and to hold them more accountable to students and their families.

"When we use the word 'accountability,' we're talking about putting community interests over self-interest," explains Betty Petty, co-coordinator of IPSG.

IPSG is a community organizing model with the long-term goal of changing the educational and economic and political system in Indianola and in the region. It brings students, parents, and community residents together around issues of community concern, particularly issues involving the schools.

Among IPSG's efforts are an after-school program that teaches students about policymaking-how laws and policies are enacted, who the people and institutions are that make policy, what the duties and responsibilities of those people and institutions are, and how citizens can effectively address and change public policy. Through its programs, IPSG is building relationships with a number of public officials and governmental bodies to improve life in Indianola, especially for people of color and people who live in low-income parts of the community.

In some ways the IPSG after-school program functions as an enhancement to school, providing real-world educational content and analysis and making sure that students get opportunities they may be missing at school. But unlike most after-school programs, this one is not just about providing enrichment or "remediation" to students. It uses an active intergenerational model that teaches community adults and students about their rights and supports them to exercise those rights. "We always ask students to bring their parents," Petty says. "If transportation is a problem we go and visit parents and bring them to programs." 
IPSG has made working on discipline policy a major focus. For example, parents have been concerned that many times when students are suspended or expelled, the incident originates with a new teacher who does not know the child.

Indianola has a critical teacher shortage and there is a lot of turnover and new staff. Most new teachers are not from the area and do not understand the history and culture. For a number of parents it seems that many teachers who do not know much about or understand the students or the community, take their cues from other teachers, some of whom are part of or beholden to the power structure that works to deny educational and economic opportunity to the public school students. 

IPSG has encountered a number of situations as simple as a student asking a new teacher a question. The teacher, who does not know the child and may have been told something negative about the student, takes the student's question as disrespectful, and reports the child. Things escalate quickly and the child is suspended or expelled from school.

Parents concerned about their children's educational opportunities see such behavior on the part of the school as preventing students from getting the skills and tools they need to be successful, as the school denying opportunities. Rather than the child being disrespectful, these parents feel the teacher was disrespectful and displayed an attitude based on a stereotype or someone else's opinion.

Because IPSG brings students and adults together in a community-based situation, adults hear about students' experiences first hand.

When IPSG hears about a student who has been disciplined inappropriately, it talks with the parents and helps parents understand their rights and the rights of their children. It also helps parents plan for how to respond to the situation, and, for parents who want the support, IPSG representatives will go with parents to the school to help them advocate for their children. IPSG believes that when parents know their rights, the system can turn around.

For Petty and IPSG their efforts are about finding and creating common ground. "It's okay to disagree as long as we are talking about the issue. The issue in schools is whether students are getting the skills and tools they need. If we all focus on the issue we will come to an agreement. It all goes back to accountability for the common good. We have to hold each other accountable to set aside our personal interests and desires and look at what makes things better for the entire community."

IPSG can point to a number of improvements that suggest their approach is making a difference. More parents are involved in the school and taking part in school governance activities like school board meetings. Some teachers are responding more appropriately to students of color. Some administrators are more receptive and report that they see an improvement in the achievement and attitude of students. Additionally, Petty has been appointed to the school board. Her presence brings a more equitable representation of the local community to the board, and because she is known as a community advocate, her voice is heard and respected.

Recently, several parents applied to be on the Local Dropout Prevention Team. "This is an important development," Petty explains. "Here is a real opportunity for parents to influence what happens at the school and to address a situation that has caused a lot of problem for our students and our community." 

For Petty the bottom line is this: "We are powerful people and when we all work together, we achieve more. Communities should always be open to hear the voices of our children crying in the proverbial wilderness. It's time for a change. Community organizing is our link to making things happen. When you look at the word community, you get unity. When you look at organizing, you get organ. When you put them together you get empowerment. Empowerment comes when the united organism works together on common goals toward a common mission and vision."