TUNICA, MISSISSIPPI — Jennifer Averill calls her eighth-graders brilliant. "You're not using your brilliance right now," she whispers to a student who is causing trouble in class. "You are so brilliant that I'm upset you're talking right now," she says to another.
Brilliant isn't the first word that comes to mind when you look at the track record of public schools in Tunica, Miss. Test scores here are about as low as test scores get, so low that the state took over the school system last year in a bid to reform it.
But the toughest and most important part of that effort has been raising expectations.
Few observers ever expected the schools in Tunica to be much better. For years, Tunica was the poorest county in the poorest state in the nation. Jesse Jackson called it America's Ethiopia.
Legalized casino gambling in 1990 changed that picture. Before gambling, the Tunica school district spent about $8 million a year to educate some 2,000 students; 11 casinos later, that figure jumped to $18 million. Tunica recently became one of the richest counties in the state.
Gambling revenues paid for remodeling schools, new labs, a new gym, a media center, and a library. When the new elementary school is built next year, the district will pay cash. "We have so much money we can barely count it. Whatever we need, we buy," says James Bulloch, principal of the Rosa Fort Middle School.
What the money hasn't been able to buy is a quality education for Tunica students. The resources so richly doled out on buildings and equipment have yet to recruit more-qualified teachers or to improve the skills or morale of the existing teaching staff. Nor has it addressed the deeper issue of how to show students that they are capable of great achievement.
Former teachers describe the old system as organized chaos. "We had years without textbooks or chalkboards, but all the maintenance men had new trucks, tractors, and lawn mowers," says Shannon Pugh, a former middle school teacher who was in Tunica at the beginning of the flush years.
When there was no algebra teacher, as was often the case, the kids would sit out the class in a hall, or a substitute teacher would try to maintain order until the next class. Order in the halls was and still is maintained with the help of an 18-inch length of rubber tire about two inches wide.
Tunica, like many other school districts in Mississippi, elects its school superintendent and school board. Jobs in the system often went to family or friends. Even with the influx of gambling money, Tunica schools were never able to find enough qualified teachers, especially in science and mathematics. The system lurched from crisis to crisis.
"You can build pretty new buildings and suddenly have lots of money to spend in the school district, but affecting change in the community and in the perception of education is a long-term process that doesn't happen overnight," says Steve Williams, director of the state office of accreditation. "We're trying to change the global picture all at once."
The down side to such sweeping, state-mandated change is that it labels all teachers and students as failures. In Tunica, as in many other troubled schools, there are classrooms and teachers that are working well. But Tunica schools had been on probation for low test scores for seven of eight previous years before the state denied accreditation in 1996.
The one exception to this pattern was the middle school, where test scores increased for two years prior to the state takeover. Officials credit much of that improvement to the work of teachers like Ms. Averill, who were recruited by Teach for America, a national program that seeks out recent college graduates to teach in at-risk urban and rural schools.
Rebuilding with the basics
Test scores have dropped since the state took over management of Tunica schools in the spring of 1997. Middle school teachers blame the drop-off in scores on the state's decision to move the junior high onto the high school campus, where many students feel lost. "The move broke our spirit," says Mr. Bulloch.
State officials say they're starting with the basics: Is instructional space adequate? Is the money being spent right? Are there rules and policies that function consistently? Do kids abide by them?
"It hasn't been easy, especially when you're talking about fundamental changes in the way a school does business," says Ron Love, the state conservator now in charge of running Tunica schools.
A major problem has been the district's extreme teacher shortage. "Gambling has made a tremendous difference in our ability to pay for programs. I can pay for new chemistry labs, but if I don't have a chemistry teacher, I'm in trouble," says Mr. Love.
Finding qualified teachers has always been a tough problem in the Delta. The starting salary in Tunica schools is $20,630 and jumps to $35,600 for teachers with a doctorate and 31 years of experience. There is still no recruitment program or upgrading of salaries. "It's our next priority," says Love.
Teach for America recruits have taken up much of the slack. Bulloch credits Teach for America members with driving a learning improvement in his middle school from 1994 to 1996, when corps members accounted for more than one-third of the staff. "They had new ideas. If something didn't work, they were willing to try something new," he says.
Lead math and science teacher Connie Murphree also applauds these teachers for an eagerness to try more hands-on work. "You've got to find a way to make math and science interesting and fun," she says. "I've seen kids' faces when you put something in their hand to figure out, rather than just tell them to turn to Page 1 and learn about 'place value' again."
What brought many of the young teachers into Mississippi Delta classrooms in the first place was a conviction that expectations should be higher.
Ms. Pugh recalls reporting to the administration when she discovered that an eighth-grader in her class only knew the letters of her own name. "I was told, 'Oh, none of that family can read.' We even heard 'experts' excuse the fact that so many kids couldn't read by saying, 'Oh, it's just the Delta, it's been that way for 200 years.' It's so unfair to some great kids." At the same time, she adds, "there are some phenomenal teachers. But they have been beaten down."
"I feel like we make excuses for our students. We're saying they can't when they really can," says Averill. Her writing classes are tightly focused. Students read their work "loud and proud," clap for each other, and offer constructive comments. "Stop," she says, cutting off an unfocused observation. "The goal isn't just to have your say and feel good about yourself. I want us all to be better writers by May."
Teaching kids to have ambitions
Class poems are regularly sent off for national competitions and two have been published. Averill's expectations for the future are signaled in comments such as, "When you're in a writing circle in college...."
The Tunica school district has solved its money problems. But that has not solved the larger question of how to nurture higher expectations.
"Mediocrity is the standard here, and there's no expectation that these kids will do anything," says Deputy Superintendent Rayburn McLeon.
Ironically, the gambling that brought money may also be distancing parents from children's education.
"Parents don't have time to be parents," says Bulloch. "They're working two or three jobs at the casinos to live the way they want to live. Their only prize possession is going lacking, and that's the kids."