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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)

Brown offers her own biography as a parable of what can happen without, and with, an education.

A native of the Delta, she dropped out of high school at 17 and began life as a fieldworker. She cut tobacco in North Carolina and picked celery in Florida and cotton in Mississippi. Then she worked as a prison guard.

At 33, she decided to go back to school, earning straight A's and graduate degrees.

Now, she said, she isn't waiting for No Child Left Behind to make a difference.

To pique the interest of parents, she has invited them to school breakfasts -- "If you say free food, they'll come," she said. Every Sunday she goes to a local church to plead for community support. She is arranging to have state prison inmates paint the school. She has even written to actor Morgan Freeman and talk show host Oprah Winfrey for help.

Some aid has already arrived. The Barksdale Reading Institute, funded with $100 million from Netscape founder Jim Barksdale, last year placed two teachers at the school who run a remedial reading program.

"We know we can do better," Brown said. "And if it takes my last breath, we will."


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