One big change coming in Mississippi is a requirement to hold back children in grades K-3 who aren't reading at grade level. That's modeled on laws adopted in Florida and 13 other states.
Clarksdale's elementary schools are trying to improve student literacy. Valarie Davis, principal at Myrtle Hall IV Elementary, said the biggest reading challenge is lack of preparation at home, reflecting poverty and low parental education levels.
"The children don't have the background," Davis said. "Some of them have never been read to or read books at home."
Preschool preparation for kindergarten could ease that problem. Mississippi has been the only state in the South and one of only 11 nationwide with no state-funded preschool program. But lawmakers approved a plan for school districts, Head Start centers and private child care operators to jointly provide voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds. Clarksdale is already using federal money to run three 20-student preschool classes, putting it among the one-third of Mississippi districts doing so even without state aid.
Clarksdale could also be an early target for a charter school under a new law easing creation of the alternative public schools. The Knowledge is Power Program, a national group, operates a charter school in nearby Helena-West Helena, Ark. The group has expressed interest in Clarksdale and many Mississippi leaders have said the school is a model. Some Clarksdale residents, including Luckett and his mayoral rival, Democratic state Rep. Chuck Espy, also support charter schools.
Dupree says the public school system is striving to be so attractive that parents will choose public schools even if a charter school opens.
"When there's choice, we want to be the choice," he said.