As proposals for four new charter schools in Natchez and Adams County progress through state approval, local leaders have differing opinions on whether the schools would improve or hinder the public education.
Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who was a long-time educator in the Natchez Adams School District, said she doesn’t think Adams County needs charter schools.
“The public school system has branched out and worked hard to provide alternative methods of education for our students,” she said.
Natchez United is the local non-profit organization seeking to start three of the proposed four charter schools.
The application for the proposed fourth charter school, Instant Impact Global, was submitted by another nonprofit organization called Instant Impact Educational Services based in Lancaster, Texas.
Approved applications for the third phase of the process will be announced on July 15, and if any of the applications move forward, a series of local public hearings will follow. Final decisions on each potential school will be announced in September.
Marvin Jeter III, Ph.D., one of the members of Natchez United
leading members, expressed the hope that the charter schools would help increase the student population by enrolling children from the communities surrounding Adams
County instead of spreading state funds over more public schools with fewer students.
The three charter schools offered by Natchez United include a Natchez-Adams Early Years and Intermediate Center for kindergarten through fifth grade; Southwest Mississippi Academy of Health Sciences for sixth through twelfth graders. The concept is that the primary school focuses on fundamental STEAM programs, science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Older students could then choose between the Academy of Health Sciences or the Conservatory of Performing and Media Arts depending on whether they want to further their math and science or creativity skills.
The Natchez-Adams School District has yet to respond to questions about the proposed charter schools or whether or not they would support them. NASD Board Chairman Amos James said the school board would release a full board statement.
Natchez-Adams District is currently rated “D” by the Mississippi Department of Education. The district went from an “F” to a “D” grade for the 2016-17 school year. The law allows charter schools to be established in any area where public schools are rated below a “C”, without school board approval.
Mathis said she believes the proposed schools will replicate existing efforts. She cites the Fallin Career and Technology Center, which provides students with job skills in a range of different career paths, as an example.
“I think the school district is also embracing parallel learning opportunities in workforce development,” she said. “When the new high school was created, they opened up Robert Lewis and Frazier and I believe we are using the other schools for that.”
She added that the Natchez Early College Academy program has been one of the most successful the school district has implemented in recent years.
“We always had double registration,” Mathis said. “Everyone thinks it’s new with NECA when it’s not. What we didn’t have was a method to earn an associate’s degree in high school. This is the change that has been most helpful because the cost of college education has increased. It’s almost out of reach for some. … If you have a student leaving with their first two years of college, they’re still considering two or three more years. This makes it more accessible. It prepares students for college and helps families pay for college.
Mathis said she graduated from college in 1970 and immediately began teaching elementary music at Braden. She taught on and off in the Natchez Adams School District for over 25 years until 2008 and continues to teach music appreciation at Copiah Lincoln Community College. Mathis said the school district was “well balanced” and at the time was leading the state in both music, athletics and education programs.
“I don’t see what else a charter school could do. I don’t see it,” she said.
As for what would happen to the community if charter schools were created, Mathis said, “We will bounce back. We have already done that.
She said other private schools were created during the integration, which “ripped the public school system apart”.
“I’m not talking about Catholic schools. There have always been Catholic schools here. But ACCS, Trinity and Thomas Jefferson and I believe another school emerged through integration. … We are always here. Public schools will stay here. We turn again and again in the same bend. What we need is to embrace our existing public schools and support them in what they are trying to do.
Neither Thomas Jefferson nor Trinity Episcopal School are still in operation.
Tony Byrne, a former Natchez mayor who was educated by Natchez Public Schools, disagrees with Mathis.
“I think charter schools have been successful across the country,” he said. “Anything that can improve our education will be useful overall.”
Byrne said that while Fallin was successful in instructing students in various career paths, the schools on offer would provide more diverse learning opportunities.
“I think the School of Arts would offer programs that aren’t offered much in any of the schools here, public or private,” he said.
Byrne said he had no complaints about having a Natchez public education, but since then the school district has scored low by state standards for many years.
“You always think your school is the best there is and I felt that, but I have nothing to base that on,” Byrne said. “We had one of the best school systems in the country and especially in the state, but they were separated. Schools here today struggle to get a passing grade. It’s been a long time (since integration) and our school systems should improve, but it’s been a long time.