Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Park School

The last time I really attended public school was second grade. Between second and ninth I either attended Catholic school or a public school out of zone that my parents paid for me to attend. This was in Vermont, which has an excellent public education system. Then we moved to Baltimore, which does not. From ninth grade on I attended an exclusive, private school in the suburbs of Baltimore.

I started ninth grade in 1989. Eleven years would pass before I would step foot inside a public school in America again. And when I did it would be one of the lowest performing schools in one of the poorest areas of the country: Simmons High School in Hollandale, Mississippi.

The Park School, where I attended high school, has graduating classes of about sixty. Every senior goes to college. Every single one. Every year one or two go to Harvard, two or three to Yale, and six to ten to Brown. The yearly tuition is about $22,000. And this is a day school, not a boarding school like Exeter. High school wasn’t even called high school, it was “The Upper School.” Elementary is “The Lower School.”

Park was essentially college in a high school. In ninth and tenth grade there were several core classes (English, math, foreign language) and the rest you chose as electives. After tenth grade you simply selected all of your classes from the “Program of Studies.” Teachers offered courses in whatever interested them: The Atom Bomb, Otherworldly Writings, Photography, Civil Liberties. You took whatever you were interested in.

For your last semester you did not take any classes. You arranged an independent study in whatever field you desired. Some wrote novels, some worked with lawyers or doctors or judges, some painted. In the spring of 1993 I interned at Senator Kennedy’s health care office in Washington, D.C. It was an interesting time as Bill Clinton had just been elected and his wife was working on a universal health care bill. The bill, a revolutionary piece of legislation that would have guaranteed all Americans free health care, failed miserably, a victim of the health care and insurance lobbies which spent millions to defeat it in the court of public opinion.

The school itself was open-ended. You didn’t have study halls, you had free periods. And you could do whatever you liked. Read in the library (my favorite), hang out in the “commons,” take a canoe out on the lake (yes, there was a lake), go for a walk in the woods, or, after tenth grade, go off campus in your car. Go home, go to the mall, go to McDonalds, it didn’t matter.

Almost every teacher was called by his or her first name. Classes were almost always discussion based. Homework was assigned every day. The sports teams weren’t very good. We didn’t even have a football or baseball team.

Academically, Park was an outstanding school. It prepared me to think on my feet, to question authority, and to dig deeper. Two teachers in particular, Howard Berkowitz and John Roemer, inspired me to become a teacher.

At the same time I didn’t like high school all that much. The kids, almost all rich, were mostly spoiled and mostly not interested in life beyond the three car garage with a lacrosse net in the perfectly manicured yard.

A place like Simmons High School simply didn’t, and simply doesn’t, exist to them.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I’m all for accountability. I am a numbers person, and, more importantly, a results person. Numbers can give you a relatively objective view of how an organization is performing.

I actually think kids should be given standardized tests every month in every subject. Maybe every two weeks. As a teacher this would give you a “real time” look at how each student is progressing. As an administrator testing kids every month would give you an accurate view of how both the students and the teachers are doing.

Why do we only test kids once a year? That doesn’t make sense. Once you get the results the school year is finished. That’s like a CEO checking the stock price once a year or a businessman checking sales volume after he’s fired.

That being said I think the accountability system in American education is a joke. Why? For a variety of reasons, but let me give you two.

One, it is insane to place such immense pressure on administrators, teachers, and students through fear of district takeover, firings, and the repeating of grades respectively, and then allow those same administrators and teachers to administer the test that their job depends on. Cheating is bound to happen. In fact, cheating on a wide scale is simply inevitable. In my personal experience I have seen cheating on standardized tests; teachers giving students answers on state-tests. Second-hand from Mississippi Teacher Corps teachers and others I have heard many stories of cheating on state-tests. Having schools administer their own state-tests is like inviting the fox into the henhouse to take inventory.

Two, you can’t hold students accountable without giving them good teachers. As important as administrators, home life, parental involvement, and a host of other factors are, the problem of education in America today is that there simply aren’t enough good teachers. More to the point there are too many bad teachers. I estimate the good teacher/bad teacher ration to be about 1/10. For every one good teacher there are about 10 bad teachers (and also about 10 average teachers). And, of course, the good teachers are clustered at the good schools, the average teachers at the average schools, and the bad teachers at the bad schools. As long as the teaching profession remains a woefully underpaid one this ratio will remain the same.

What do I think of accountability and No Child Left Behind (NCLB)? I think it is a rigged test. Rigged to show the country that public schools are terrible and thus to pave the way for the privatization of education. I think NCLB is gift to Corporate America. Education is one of the last, gigantic revenue streams not yet available to them. Health care, communications, and energy have all been given away. Social security and public education are all that remain. Watch closely…

Hollandale, Epilogue:

Well, I think I did a good job describing Hollandale but I don't think I did a very good job of explaining why it is so important to me. In fact, I imagine that some readers (all two of you) will probably be even more confused as to why this small, dying town has such a pull on me.

I don't know if I can explain it so let me leave you with a story:

A person asked me recently if I saw hope for education in the Delta. I answered honestly and said no. I think the battle for education in the Delta has been fought and lost. The person asked, why then did I continue to work for the cause of education in the Delta if I felt so strongly that it was a lost cause.

My answer to that question is the same as my answer to why Holldandale is so important to me:

I don't know.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hollandale, Conclusion:

“I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” William Faulkner

In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt was hunting on the outskirts of Hollandale when his attendants roped an old, black bear. Roosevelt declined to shoot, calling it unsportsmanlike. A cartoonist for The Washington Post drew a cartoon of the event that was picked up the next day and reprinted across the country. The bear become known as “Teddy’s Bear,” and, a few months later, a Brooklyn shopkeeper started selling “Teddy Bears.”

The history of Hollandale, this tiny postage stamp of a town, is our history. From slavery to Elvis to literature to teddy bears it is nothing less than the story of America...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hollandale, Part Ten:


I asked each of my interview subjects what the people of Hollandale valued:

“Money,” said Ms. Bibb. “Everyone values money.”

“The values of this community? Morally bankrupt,” said Mr. Burford.

“People care,” said Ms. Richmond. “I’m not going to say people don’t care. But they not going to be too much concerned if it doesn’t affect them. No one is willing to make big change.”

“The values of Hollandale? Very few,” said Mr. Sanders. “The ones who would bring value have all left. In parts of the town young people have taken over the streets. Selling drugs and doing drugs. The parents aren’t involved. We won’t get ten people for a PTA meeting. But come Friday night everyone will turn out for some booty-shaking.”


I asked each of my interview subjects what was unique about Hollandale:

“An atmosphere of looking after each other,” said Ms. Bibb. “It is a friendly place.”

“We are just another deteriorating Delta community,” said Mr. Burford.

“We’re a city that reached its peak, and now we are on our way down,” said Mr. Sanders. “Once we were a piece of coal transformed into a diamond. But that is over now.”

“My family here," said Ms. Richmond. "That’s it."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Hollandale, Part Nine:

“The Lower Mississippi Delta Region... is presently chained by the bonds of illiteracy, poverty, and prejudice.”
Dr. Jocelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General

“I was sitting outside the library my freshman year at Ole Miss,” said Michelle Johnson, a 2000 graduate of Simmons High School and a 2004 graduate of the University of Mississippi, “and I got to talking with this white girl. I asked her where she was from and she said the Delta. I said, ‘I’m from the Delta. Where are you from?’ She said, ‘Greenville.’ I said, ‘I’m from Greenville.’ She said, ‘Actually I’m from Hollandale, I just say Greenville because no one has ever heard of Hollandale.’ I said, ‘I’m from Hollandale and I say the same thing.’”

Two young women, the same age, from the same town of 3,400 people and they had never even seen each other before.

“We won the state championship (in basketball) in 2004,” said DC, a Mississippi Teacher Corps teacher in Hollandale from 2003-2005. “The town had a parade for them. We had all these kids marching down Main Street, and a lot of the black community members cheering them on. At the same time two white women were walking along the sidewalk as if nothing was happening. It was as if they were in another time, in another universe.”

Ms. C went on to say, “America is unique in that you have the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners still living together. If you look at countries in Africa or in South America, at the end of the day, the colonizers went home. That didn’t happen here.”

“Teachers (including Ms. C) don’t live here,” said Mr. Sanders. “Our smartest people drive in from Greenville or Leland. And at three o’clock they’re gone.”

“What happens is the white boys come back from college and work on their daddy’s farm,” said Ms. Bibb. “The black kids that go to college, they’re never coming back. So you’re left with a group of wealthy, educated whites and a group of blacks that lose their smartest young people each year.”

“After integration the wealthier whites moved out to their farms,” said Mr. Sanders. “By moving out of the city limits they only paid county taxes.”

“Another problem is drugs,” says Ms. Bibb. “You’ve got some of the white kids doing crystal meth and cocaine and the black kids doing weed and crack."

“A lack of revenue is the biggest problem,” said Mr. Burford.

Mr. Sanders agreed with this, saying, “Economic development.”

“Teen pregnancy,” said Ms. Richmond. “That’s the biggest problem. And there is no place for children to go. No jobs. No nothing. Hollandale is a place where you wouldn’t want to settle. It’s no place to call home. There ain’t nothing here. Nothing...”

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hollandale, Part Eight:

“Integration caused a deterioration in Hollandale,” said Mr. Sanders, a black man. “We integrated, but not really, and that was the beginning of the end.”

In 1969 the Hollandale Minority Foundation, run by Mr. Sanders’ father, T.R. Sanders, opened the catfish processing plant with a grant from the government. The stock holders of the plant were black.

“Once the plant opened money began to circulate a little bit,” said Mr. Sanders. “We employed, at it’s height, about 250 people.”

Much of the recent history is simply plants and businesses closing.

The cottonseed oil plant was closed in 1983. The trains stopped in 1984. The hospital closed in 1989. The catfish plant closed in 2002.

In 1988 a court case played an important role in the development of the town.

“The beginning of the end goes back to 1988,” said Mr. Burford. “In 1988 a group of citizens sued to have the town divided into voting wards. This meant that a town of, at that time roughly 4,500 people, was split into five wards. Instead of the whole town coming together to vote for the common good people started to get caught up in petty politics. After the town was divided into wards many of the whites left because there was no way they were going to be ruled by black people. That’s just how it was.”

Mr. Sanders pinpointed a different ending point. “The Civil Rights Movement,” said Mr. Sanders. “That was the beginning of the end. When Stokely Carmicheal and Martin Luther King came to the delta. See, until then, we had what we called our big social event every Saturday evening. Whites and blacks all came downtown to Main Street. From dusk ‘til ten P.M. At ten o’clock the mayor rang the bell and everyone went home. Once integration happened all the whites moved out. We never really integrated. That was the beginning of the end.”

“And then when the catfish plant closed that was the real end. That was it,” said Mr. Burford. “200 jobs, right there.”

The catfish plant closed in 2002, the same year that the Super Wal-Mart opened in Greenville. “The last stores on Main Street closed after that,” said Mr. Burford. “There is no more industry. Twenty years from now Hollandale won’t even exist...”

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Each year we give out t-shirts to the new group of Mississippi Teacher Corps participants. It has our logo (thanks to Allison Litten, Class of 2000) on the front, and an outline of Mississippi on the back. Inside the outline we put everyone's name from that year.

My first year as Program Manager, in the summer of 2003, we gave out t-shirts during the initial summer training. Big mistake, as some people quit. It bothered me that people were walking around, wearing t-shirts from our program with their name on it, and they hadn't finished the program.

Having learned that lesson the next year I waited until the fall to order the t-shirts. Much better, but the illustrious Class of 2004 still had one person leave the program after the first year. So, this year I've decided to wait until the second summer to give out the t-shirts. From now on people will have to be in the Teacher Corps for a full year before they get that light grey, four color, MTC t-shirt with their name on it.

Which is a long way of saying, I'm glad I waited because three of the first-years have dropped out. Sarah DeGraaf, Ari Glogower, and Reggie Quinn have all finished the year teaching but have decided not to return for a second year. Without going into detail all three essentially said, "Teaching isn't for me."

As Dave Molina, one of our first-years, said: "The cardinal rule of Teacher Corps is that you finish the year." Or maybe it was: "The cardinal sin in Teacher Corps is to leave during the year." Yes, that is the cardinal sin. I really can't be too upset with someone if they finish the school year and then decide to leave. The bad news though is that there are three people out there who really wanted to be in the Teacher Corps, and who would have made good teachers.

I guess as long as we can continue to gurantee to school districts that our teachers will finish the year then we will be okay.

But I'm glad I didn't order the t-shirts yet.

Hollandale, Part Seven:

“When I was young we had a movie theater. The blacks sat upstairs.”
Howard Sanders, Retired Superintendent of Hollandale

The Holland Family founded Hollandale in the 1870’s. The town was founded on the banks of Deer Creek to take advantage of the cotton trade.

“Cotton would be transported on steamboats all the way down to New Orleans,” said Dr. Andy Mullins, the Special Assistant to the Chancellor at the University of Mississippi. “All these little tributaries and offshoots of the river would carry cotton.”

To take advantage of the cotton production in the area the Illinois Central Gulf ran train tracks through the town. This helped to create a growing industry in the town.

“Local rail boosters found much to praise in towns as small as Hollandale, which was found to contain splendid hotels, schools, and churches and conduct a magnificent business despite a population of only 250.” 1890 John Wilis, Forgotten Time, UVA Press, Page 108

“When I was young,” said Mr. Sanders, who was born in 1938, “we had a movie theater. The blacks sat upstairs. We had restaurants on Main Street. Four groceries right there. We had a passenger train that came right through Hollandale.”

In 1938 Mr. Emory Simmons, the former slave who started the first black school in Hollandale, procured a grant through the Rosenthal Foundation to build the current high school. “The Rosenthal Foundation built schools all over the Delta,” said Mr. Sanders. “That’s why so many have the same design, the same gym, and the same layout.”

The biggest event in the town’s history is integration. Integration was mandated in 1954 with the Supreme Court ruling of Brown versus the Board of Education. Integration was enforced in Mississippi in 1970.

In the late 1960’s there were two public high schools in Hollandale. Hollandale High School was the white school, located in the white section of town, on the banks of Deer Creek. Simmons High School was the black school, located across the train tracks and bookended to this day by cotton fields. With the enforcement of integration these schools were consolidated. Rather then let black children attend school at Hollandale High the school officials and white community members closed the school and razed the building. Deer Creek Academy was created in nearby Arcola and all the white students were moved there. In 2006 there were no white students at Simmons High School and no black students at Deer Creek Academy...

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hollandale, Part Six:

It takes about $5,000 to win an election in the Delta.”
Reggie Barnes, Former Superintendent of Cleveland

There are two means of power: money and influence. In Hollandale, the whites have the money and the blacks have the influence.

With African-Americans making up more than 80% of the population any elected official must have their support. Support in the black community in Hollandale is often gained through the churches. For such a small town Hollandale has more than 40 churches. There are six white churches and roughly 35 black churches.

Church leaders carry more influence than anyone else. During elections various church leaders will accept payment in return for steering the congregation to vote for the paying candidate. “It takes about $5,000 to win an election in the Delta,” said Reggie Barnes, the former Superintendent of Cleveland.

“In the last election a pastor stood outside the polling venue and passed out sample ballots there were pre-marked,” said Mr. Burford.

Six farmers own most of the land in and around Hollandale. As such they have most of the money in the town. These “Big Six” families are all white and attend the First Methodist Church. Their children and grandchildren all attend Deer Creek Academy, the local “white” academy, located in nearby Arcola. Meanwhile, the black kids in Arcola are bussed to Simmons High School in Hollandale (7 miles).

“The churches and Deer Creek have held the white community together,” said Mr. Burford. “Without the academy and the ties of the church there would be no whites left in Hollandale.”

The elected public officials are the mayor, the alderman, and the school board. “Hollandale runs on a code-charter system,” said Mr. Burford. “We have a Board of Aldermen (five) that set policy for the city. We have a mayor that is the day-to-day manager of the city and who is in charge of enforcing the ordinances set by the Board. That’s the textbook. In reality, it was like walking on a hot, tin roof. We had five different alderman with five different agendas, and only one of them cared about the town. Absolutely nothing got done. Some alderman tried to use the police department to harass their opponents.”

Mr. Burford, a white man, was elected mayor in 2001. He served one four-year term. “I got elected because I had three black opponents that split the vote,” said Mr. Burford.

I asked each of my interview subjects about the most influential person in Hollandale:

“I don’t know,” said Ms. Katherine Bibb, a white woman who graduated from Hollandale High School (the public, white, high school before integration) in the late 1950’s. Ms. Bibb’s father was a local farmer. “I guess the mayor. What is his name? Redmond?” The current mayor’s name is Willie Burnside.

“Howard Sanders is the most influential man in Hollandale,” said Mr. Burford. “His father was the Superintendent for years, and when he retired Howard took over as Superintendent. Howard has always been involved with the schools so the whole town knows him. He also runs one of the most profitable businesses in Hollandale (a funeral home).”

“I wouldn’t even try to say,” said Mr. Sanders.

“I’d say Walter Thompson,” said Ms. Richmond. “He’s well known. He has a lot of authority.” Thompson is the Athletic Director and the retired vice-principal of Sanders Elementary School...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hollandale, Part Five:

“That Mississippi sound, that Delta sound is in them old records. You can hear it all the way through.”
Muddy Waters

Hollandale is slowly shrinking, dying really, from lack of industry. The population in 1983 is estimated by Burford and Sanders to be about 5,500. The population in 1990 was 3,576. In 2000 it was 3,437. In 2004, it was 3,202. In 14 years more than a tenth of the population has left. In 21 years 42% of the population has left.

83% of the current population is African-American, 16.5% is White, and .5% is Other. 56% of the population is female, 44% is male.

The per capita income is $9,251. 39% of the residents live below the poverty line, including 54% of the people under the age of 18. 9.7% of the population is unemployed. 40% of the population makes less than $15,000 a year. 70% of the population makes less than $35,000 a year.

About 10% of the adult population has less than a 5th grade education. More than 50% of people over the age of 25 have not graduated high school. About 10% of residents over the age of 25 have graduated from a four-year college. Four people, all women, have a Ph.D.

“The condition of the water and sewer facilities is desperate,” said Mr. Burford. “Roads are in terrible condition. There is no room in the budget for anything more than filling in a pothole.”

“The streets are deplorable,” said Mr. Sanders. “Pretty soon we’ll have problems with the sewers.”

The train tracks are completely grown over and, at this point, probably unusable. There is a small municipal airport, used mostly for crop dusters. The closest shipping port is Greenville (30 miles). Highway 61 and Highway 12 both run through Hollandale.

There are few, if any, cultural resources. The most popular events are high school sports. Simmons High School is particularly good in basketball and has won two state championships in the past five years.

There are several juke joints, known as “Blue Front,” located by the train tracks.

“What is there to do? For a young person? Walk the around the streets and play ball at the center,” said Ms. Richmond. “That’s it.” The center is an outdoor basketball court...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Hollandale, Part Four:

“What economy? I’m dead serious. What economy?”
Ashley Richmond, 17 Years Old.

Annual Income in Hollandale:


At the center of town is a huge, rusting, metal factory, the remnants of a cottonseed oil plant. The history of trade and economics in Hollandale is the same throughout the Mississippi Delta: cotton. All aspects of the cotton industry, from the fieldwork to the gin to the huge, cottonseed oil plant provided work. The train tracks run alongside the plant. In 1983 the plant was closed and, soon after, the trains stopped running through Hollandale.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s cotton production became much more mechanized in the region. “One tractor equals 150 men,” said Mr. Sanders. At this point the catfish processing plant became the main industry in town. The plant closed in 2002, laying off 200 people or almost a tenth of the town’s population. The biggest employer is now the school district.

“Hollandale is in a desperate situation. A city should set the majority of its revenue from two places: sales tax and property tax,” said Mr. Larry Burford, the mayor of Hollandale from 2001 to 2005. “Because of the loss of industry and the proximity of Greenville we have very little sales tax. Because most of our homeowners are elderly they receive an exemption from the property tax. We have no money. We can’t repair the roads or the sewers. With the price of gas rising and the price of health insurance sky-rocketing we won’t be able to pay the police officers.”

“The city is living month to month,” said Mr. Sanders.

Downtown is now completely boarded up with the exception of Jane’s (the white café) and a storefront church, The Powerhouse Apostolic Deliverance Church or, as the people in town call it, “The Powerhouse.”

“Wal-Mart put the final nail in the coffin,” said Mr. Sanders. A Super Wal-Mart opened in Greenville, 28 miles away, in 2002. “The last few shops that were hanging on were gone after that. When churches start moving into your downtown district that’s the end.”

The decline of the cotton industry and the closing of the cottonseed oil and catfish plants, has choked off most of the available revenue. This, in turn, has lead to some stark numbers...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Hollandale, Part Three:

In the past few years some middle-class blacks have moved across the tracks, living alongside middle-class white families. The wealthy white families, however, live on the other side of the creek. There are only two bridges in the town and these bridges (and the creek itself) set apart the wealthier white community from the rest of the town.

But the centerpiece of the Delta is the Mississippi River. Really, it is the centerpiece of the United States of America. The Great River created, among other things, rock and roll, American Literature, and, of course, the Civil War.

Millions of Africans were brought over to pick the cotton (with millions more dying on the way), bringing customs, music, and culture from West Africa. Jazz, the blues, and juke joints all have their roots in West Africa. The word “juke” means “wicked” in many West African dialects. Elvis Presley, as a young, impressionable man would drive over to the Delta from his hometown of Tupelo, MS and take in the music at these juke joints. This was the spark of rock and roll.

Growing up on the river Mark Twain based many of his stories around its waters. The river is the central narrative of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel that, according to Earnest Hemingway, “all American literature came from.”

Slavery is the lasting impact though. Slavery, the Civil War, and our tortured history of race in this country all originated with the river. Walk through Hollandale and look at the faces. You are looking at the great grandchildren of slaves and slave owners.

“Emory R. Simmons, a former slave, started the first black school in Hollandale in 1890,” said Mr. Howard Sanders, the retired Superintendent of the Hollandale School District.

The cotton fields in the Delta hold our history in the soil. Rock and roll, American literature, and the Civil War. It all started right here...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Hollandale, Part Two:

“With each spring thaw for thousands of years the Mississippi River carried off the rich topsoil of the Midwest. Then, just south of Memphis, the river predictably bulged out over its banks, hurling water and purloined silt onto a low-lying alluvial basin nearly 200 miles long and up to 70 miles across at its widest point…. Centuries of annual inundation and departure thus deposited a thick, rock-free, and fecund soil upon the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta – conditions fit for a king. King Cotton, that is.” John Wilis, Forgotten Time

The landscape of Hollandale, like most of the Mississippi Delta, is as flat as an uncluttered desktop. But the land itself is as fertile as any in the world, a gift of Mississippi River.

The source of the Mississippi River is Lake Itasca in Minnesota. It is the longest river in the United States, about 2,320 miles, stretching from Lake Itasca to New Orleans, LA and then emptying in the Gulf of Mexico. A drop of water in Lake Itasca takes about 90 days to reach the Gulf.

The river has drained about 41% of the United States over the past 15,000 years. The endless flooding and changing of the river deposited an enormous amount of sediment throughout the Delta. Stand in the Mississippi Delta and you are standing on the remains of the Rocky Mountains. This alluvium deposit created the most fertile land in the world, perfect for growing the labor-intensive cash crop of cotton.

The Mississippi River is located 12 miles to the West of Hollandale, but a tributary, Deer Creek, runs alongside, and sometimes through, the town. Because of the fertile land and of its proximity to Deer Creek, Hollandale, historically, had access to good resources and trade. As cotton production became more mechanized and as the country shifted from rivers and trains to trucks and planes as the primary means of transportation, these benefits faded.

The train tracks are, perhaps, the most important geographical feature of Hollandale because they literally divide the town. For most of the town’s existence blacks have lived on one side of the tracks and whites on the other. “Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.” runs through the black section of town and then becomes “Bee Bee Street” on the other side of the tracks. On one side of the tracks there is a black café, Marie’s. On the other side, a white café, Jane’s.

“They are what separates us,” said Ashley Richmond, a 17 year old black female, referring to the tracks...