As a new year begins, schools gear up for less masks, more learning and fun

The superintendent of the Jackson district, Eric Greene, ran across the street in a forest-green and blue plaid jacket. Bald over a sharp, frosted beard, Dr. Green, as he is known to students and staff, moves like a man on fire.

His grueling schedule for the week includes stops at 26 schools in the district.

Welcome to the national labor shortage

Inside North Jackson Elementary, Greene pops in and out of classrooms.

In a first class room, he jokes with the kids.

“Good morning! Is it second class?”

“No!” Students respond with smiles. Greene is a serious man with serious things on his mind, and the kids clearly enjoy watching him play the fool.

“Third grade?” she asked the question.

“First class!” The children reply, relishing the opportunity to correct their teacher’s boss’s boss.

At her desk, 6-year-old M’Lyah colors, clutching a blue crayon between her freshly painted orange and shiny-silver fingernails.

“Look at that. You’re better than me,” Green laughs.

At all four stops during the day, Green meets not only with teachers and scholars (whom she calls students), but also with parents and cafeteria workers.

“I know it’s a big job,” he tells a custodian, who sheepishly replies, “It’s in a day’s work.”

That’s when Jackson’s story, and the challenges its educators and families are facing this year, starts to feel like the story of many districts right now.

A tight labor market means that custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers can often find better wages elsewhere.

So Greene makes sure his employees feel valued.

“Listen, I know you’ve got this,” Green tells the custodian, “but I want you to know this We see you

Superintendent Dr. Eric Green in front of the school
Superintendent Greene was hired in 2018, shortly after a proposed state takeover, which the district ultimately avoided. Today, Jackson is in the fourth year of a five-year turnaround plan. (Jeffrey Pierre/NPR)

‘Not today, Satan’

Jackson, like many big-city districts, struggles with poverty.

One in three families with one student in public school lives below the poverty line, and most students qualify for school food assistance.

After the district attempted to desegregate, around 1970, white families left in droves for private schools or the suburbs.

Today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s face still adorns the school district’s central office building, even though Jackson students are 95% black.

The city’s aging water system is a slow-moving disaster and is already complicating Green’s emergency plans Many schools tape off water fountains, regularly under a boil water warning.

During the first week of classes, every school is provided with bottled water, and several schools do not have enough water pressure to flush their toilets.

Jackson’s school buildings are also in need of regular repairs.

“I had to do something,” said science teacher Tanya Fortenberry, who, when her classroom’s air conditioner broke, built her own out of Styrofoam.

“I put 10 to 12 bottles of water in the fridge, put them in there. This little fan here blows the air,” she says. “It’s not working right now ’cause the snow’s melted, but it’s pretty cool in the morning!”

Students in class
Like many big-city school districts, most Jackson students spent the entire 2020-’21 school year learning online — or trying to. When students returned to the buildings in the fall of ’21, test scores showed a drop in proficiency levels. Recent data, however, suggest an academic rebound at Jackson. (Jeffrey Pierre/NPR)

Fortenberry wears a lanyard with a pin that captures the mood of many Jackson educators and families at the moment. It says, “Not Satan today.”

“We’re going to get it done,” Fortenberry explains. “Throw all your wrenches at us if you want, you know? No air conditioning? Well, we’ll work through it, you know? Not the devil today.”

The good news is, Jackson is getting help.

A bond measure allowed the district to renovate all of its high school libraries over the past two years, adding comfortable, welcoming furniture and coffee stations for students.

Congress has sent more than $200 million in pandemic aid to the district.

Superintendent Greene said he will spend about a third of that on building upgrades, including new H-VAC, at six of his seven high schools.

“You know, a big part. [I’m] Thank goodness we found it. It is unfortunate that we have to spend it [facilities]”

Green would rather spend those federal dollars on learning.

Academic collapse of the pandemic

Like many big-city school districts, most Jackson students spent the entire 2020-’21 school year learning online — or trying to. When students returned to the building in the fall of ’21, test scores showed a drop in proficiency levels.

In 2019, before the pandemic, about 27% of Jackson students were at or above grade level in English Language Arts. After a year of online learning, that dropped to just 18%.

Latosha Beau-Cancer first saw regression as a second-grade teacher last year.

My child was in second class [reading] at a kindergarten level, and it was difficult,” Beau-Cancer said. “Even though they didn’t make it to potential readers in second grade, they grew. And that was the goal.”

The math story was even worse. In 2019, about 24% of Jackson students were at or above grade level. After a year of online learning, only 9% were.

So last year, Greene and his team did what many schools in the U.S. are doing: do what they can. Most importantly, they carve out specific time in students’ daily schedules for academic intervention.

Students who needed help with math or reading received it, either from classroom teachers or dedicated interventionists.

Preliminary data from last spring suggest the shock has made a big difference: Skill levels are almost back to where they were before the pandemic.

Of course, those levels are still low, and Superintendent Greene knows the district needs to keep pushing if it’s to meet its turnaround goals.

School counselor Tiffany Johnson
Elementary school counselor Tiffany Johnson created a grief group for students last year. The district has a relatively new social-emotional learning program, where teachers check in with kids daily and work with them to name and manage their fears and frustrations. (Jeffrey Pierre/NPR)

‘We are hopeful’

Green came to Jackson five years ago after helping run schools in Tulsa. He agreed to lead the city’s troubled district out of an academic and administrative crisis after Mississippi leaders threatened a state takeover.

Today, Jackson is in the fourth year of a five-year turnaround plan; Greene’s success or failure in meeting the plan’s lofty goals will be his legacy.

Unfortunately, no one envisioned the pandemic when these goals were set.

“We have a ways to go. But we’re optimistic that we’ll continue to make some big leaps,” Green said from a conference room at the district’s central office.

Making that leap means asking more of Jackson’s teachers. And some are still tired from the last few years.

“I am constantly encouraged [teachers], ‘Please don’t leave. I urge you not to leave,” said Akemi Stout, president of the Jackson chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Extra hours. Oh, my God. I’ve had so many calls since then [the school year started]”

The state’s governor recently signed a major teacher pay raise, which will help retain some of the district’s teachers who lose out each year to better salaries in neighboring states.

Beau-Cancer, who is teaching third grade this year, said she’s ready for this new year’s challenges — and is just as optimistic as Greene.

“We had a writing practice today, and it was hard to see. We have work to do, but I’m optimistic,” Beau-Cancer said, as students try. “I’m ready for this year. I’m excited.

‘Covid is still here’

Perhaps the biggest question facing Jackson’s educators and families and the rest of the country this school year is an emotional one: How do they feel about going back to school as Covid refuses to go away?

A classroom decorated with stuffed animals
The Jackson School District, like many districts around the country, is trying to make its schools more welcoming to kids. Counselor Tiffany Johnson, seen above, fills her office with bright colors, stuffed animals and comforting distractions like Jenga blocks. (Jeffrey Pierre/NPR)

“I’m a good mom, but I’m not a good teacher,” laughs Colandra Moore after walking her 10-year-old son to class. Translation: He’s thrilled that school has started and the district seems unlikely to be remote again.

Jackson Public Schools was unusual in that it required all masks last year and still allowed some students to work remotely. This year, it’s not doing it.

Latrenda Owens said she lost a cousin to Covid and her son, a ninth-grader, still wears his mask.

“Because Covid is still here. I mean, I know some people have their feelings about it, but my point is, vaccination or not, it’s still here. So why don’t they still have to wear masks. Why still They don’t have to defend themselves.”

Jackson’s schools are also focusing on other ways to protect students — not just from Covid but from the emotional toll it takes.

‘I thought he was an angel on earth’

The district has a relatively new social-emotional learning program, where teachers check in with kids daily and work with them to name and manage their fears and frustrations.

And staff are paying special attention to students who have lost loved ones.

“Maybe my little ones will draw pictures of that loved one and tell me something special about them,” said elementary school counselor Tiffany Johnson, who created a grief group for students last year.

A little girl, who lost her mother to Covid, loved going to Johnson’s office and playing with a tower of brightly painted Jenga blocks.

“I told him, it’s like your emotions sometimes: Everything can be perfect and Jenga looks perfect now, but once we start pulling things, then, you know, something happens. Everything falls apart. But guess what, we do it again. can back up.”

Fifteen-year-old Makalyn Oddie and her 17-year-old sister Alana lost their mother to Covid early in the pandemic.

“To me, no one compares to my mom. No one comes close to her,” McAllen said.

“I would hide in his bed at night, lay under him,” Alana remembers. “I was very, very attached to him. He would do anything for the people he loved. Even the people he didn’t know, he would do anything for them. I felt like he was an angel on earth.”

Makalin said she got help with her grief from a counselor at school last year, and this year, she says, she feels ready to put herself out there in ways she didn’t feel comfortable doing last year, trying out track and even football.

“I mean, sometimes I’d get angry, and I’d have to let it out. Or I’d just cry,” McLean said. “Or sometimes I don’t even want to get up, I want to sleep all day. But then I have to get up and go. I just have to do it. I have to do it.”