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By the Mississippi Delta, A Whole School Left Behind

Shatarya McGhee, foreground; DeMontray Houston, center; and Tyronza Thompson at Como Elementary, where math and reading test scores rank last among Mississippi schools.
Shatarya McGhee, foreground; DeMontray Houston, center; and Tyronza Thompson at Como Elementary, where math and reading test scores rank last among Mississippi schools. (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)

Como Elementary's small size also makes it easier to get a passing grade under the law. The law requires measures of proficiency not just from the school as a whole but also from each of its "subgroups" -- such as low-income students, the disabled, Hispanics and African Americans. But if a subgroup at a Mississippi school has fewer than 40 students in it, the standards do not apply -- an exemption that particularly benefits small schools.

Faced with criticism over its testing standards, Mississippi is planning to raise them next year.

But a tougher standard will not resolve the challenge of attracting the "highly qualified teachers" -- with a bachelor's degree and demonstrated proficiency in class subject matter -- that places such as Como desperately need, Bounds and others argue.

The nature of the work -- bringing disadvantaged children up to speed -- is arguably more difficult, while the pay is less. Nearby jurisdictions, such as Memphis, pay roughly 30 percent more for teachers, and Mississippi cities that have casinos can also afford to pay far more than Como's district.

Some good teachers come anyway. "I know somebody has to stay here," said Chiquitha Rosemon, 31, a second-grade teacher whose students last year fared well on the tests. "You have to love the children."

"Some of the kids come in here and don't even know how to hold a book," said Lauren LaVergne, a first-grade teacher. "They hold it upside down, or they read it from the back to the front. They just haven't ever been read to."

Other teachers arrive at Como because they could not make the teacher exam scores required in Tennessee, or because they have failed elsewhere. Several struggle just to maintain order. Their students slump in chairs. Some seem to doze off. Some puff out their cheeks to make rapping sounds and shimmy in their seats. Principal Brown peered through the doorway of one classroom and watched the teacher doing paperwork as the kids romped.

One of the new teachers hushed his first-grade class over and over during a fill-in-the-blanks exercise.

"Those people who are talking are not going to know what to do," he warned.

Several times, he motioned for quiet. Soon he began his warning count. "One. . . . Two. . . . There are a lot of people who are going to get their cards full. . . . Three."

Later, he said frankly that the districts in Tennessee, where he lives, were "too picky" to give him a job.

Como wasn't.


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