Beth Fulmer, a rookie teacher at Oakhurst Middle School, says poverty is a destabilizing force that her students struggle with. "I think a lot of a child's success comes from their home lives," she said.
Superintendent Dennis Dupree's profile is rising as he tries to lift achievement levels in Clarksdale. Since Dupree was appointed in 2007, the district has won grants to improve its high school and one of its two middle schools. Clarksdale was one of the first three districts statewide to adopt a more rigorous high school curriculum. After piloting it with 40 students, Dupree plans to roll it out for all 9th graders next fall. He's also volunteered Clarksdale as one of four districts to experiment with paying teachers based on performance, a pilot program meant to help Mississippi develop a merit pay system for all teachers. And Dupree is one of a group of educators who designed a new scoring system to grade schools statewide.
Dupree says his ultimate goal is to vault Clarksdale into the top rank of Mississippi districts.
"We've been seeing improvement, Dupree said. "We know we've been seeing it."
Many say Dupree is at least chipping away at the schools' failings.
"I feel like they are doing a fairly good job," said Lamar Hicks, a Clarksdale High graduate and former assistant teacher who has a son in first grade. "They are doing exactly what they can do."
There's still a long way to go. The overall district and Clarksdale High School were exempted from Mississippi's A-to-F school grading system last year because of the high school curriculum pilot. Results from elementary and middle schools were mixed. Two of six elementary school got B grades. But two elementary schools and both middle schools were graded F.