— CLARKSDALE, Miss. (AP) — It's early on a Friday morning, and high school chemistry students in Victoria Dawson's class are working equations at the board.
Dawson is peppering the class of 11 girls and four boys with questions, trying to keep everyone focused as she helps correct mistakes.
When a student gets one of the dense equations right, Dawson and the class salute with finger-snapping in place of applause
"I want some A's on Tuesday," the teacher says, warning of an upcoming test.
In a state where Republican leaders are trying to put their stamp on long-running efforts to improve education, Clarksdale is emblematic of both the challenges the state faces and innovative ideas for boosting schools. Dawson's class is part of a program in the district to develop a more rigorous high-school curriculum.
Leaders of the city in the impoverished Delta region — known as the crossroads of the blues where Robert Johnson once lived — hope improved education will help stanch a hemorrhaging population that now stands at 18,000.
"Without a strong public school system, you have no growth in the community," said Lois Erwin, a former principal at a private school who's now coordinating a community development effort sponsored by a local bank. "You've got to have a strong public school system or you don't have economic development. That's just it."
Republicans' statewide solutions include making it easier to create charter schools and holding back third-graders who can't read. Other changes approved by lawmakers are state-funded prekindergarten and higher qualifications and merit pay for teachers.
"All those categories that we see that have an effect not only on quality of life, but on our society and workforce, go back to beginning with a failure in the educational system," said Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who names education as key to improving Mississippi's weak economy. "There's nothing better that I could do than change what I think has been a fairly ineffective educational system."