Principal Glenn Carter cracks open the door to an Algebra II class at South Pemiscot High School in rural Steele, Mo., where teacher Linda Crawford shuffles four reluctant students into different configurations. Students chuckle as Crawford gleefully moves her volunteers from place to place. One student, 11th grader Alli Jones, laughs and jots down a few careful notes with the rest of the class.
Last year, Jones probably wouldn’t have been here. She skipped school almost every week.
“I would just stay home, just to stay home, because I didn’t want to come to school. I just like to play video games,” Jones said.
“I try to encourage my friend to come to school more,” Jones said. “I used to miss just as much as she did last year and she’s really improved a lot. She hasn’t missed any this quarter or anything. I’m really proud of her.”This year, Jones has a new attitude about school. She has perfect attendance.
Steele lays in far southeastern Missouri in the sole of the Bootheel, a nine mile drive from the Arkansas border. The land, flat and fertile, gives way to field after field of cotton, corn and soybeans. Statistics are not kind to this part of the state. Pemiscot County’s poverty and teen pregnancy rates are among the highest in Missouri, and life expectancy is lower than El Salvador’s.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) standard is to have at least 90 percent of students in school 90 percent of the time. The South Pemiscot County School District fell far short last year, 21 percent of students missed enough class to be considered chronically absent. That’s the same rate as St. Louis Public Schools. The tiny Bootheel school of 650 students is at risk of losing its accreditation.
Parties, laptops and lounges
School administrators are trying to find ways to keep kids in classroom seats, but it’s an uphill climb. High school principal Glenn Carter said it is difficult to encourage students with fun schools trips, for instance, because Steele is so far away from fun cultural attractions. Memphis is more than an hour to the south, and it takes three hours to drive to St. Louis.
“In some ways, our kids are more disadvantaged than the disadvantaged kids in the cities, from my perspective,” Carter said.
So instead of trips, they have parties every four weeks for students who do not miss school. Carter hopes to give laptops to kids like Jones with perfect attendance. Next year, they might have a lounge for students with better than 90 percent attendance; there they could use their cell phones and play video games on their lunch break.
“We just got to convince them that, hey, this is your answer in life,” Carter said. “This here is what’s going to put you ahead. This is what’s going to get you out of this community. Do you like where you’re living in now? You go home to an empty house now. Do you like that? They don’t like that. They want to feel [they] belong. They want to feel loved.”
Currently, students who miss too much school have to attend extra hours on Thursday evenings and on Saturdays. But Carter said that system created a paradox. Kids would miss a day of school because they knew they could go to Thursday school instead, Carter said, and the school cannot count Thursday school as attendance. So Carter is reevaluating that entire system and may get rid of it.
Kids with attendance below 90 percent cannot go to school ball games, and in the future they might be barred from dances.
Carter is working with the state’s attorney to prosecute some negligent parents.
“When it comes down to it, those kids have got to be here at the school,” Carter said. “I have a lot of parents who probably will be brought up for charges towards this end of the year. I hate doing it. My hands are tied on the matter. We have to do what’s got to be done for our kids.”
It takes a village
The social problems in Pemiscot County are huge. Poverty is widespread. Drugs, violence and crime are common. Most kids come from single-parent households. Others are homeless — bouncing from house to house, living with any friend or family member who will take them in. Too many parents do not value education, Carter said, because they had bad experiences in school themselves or dropped out.
Jeff McCutcheon, the executive director of the nonprofit Pemiscot County Initiative Network, said many kids in Pemiscot and neighboring Dunklin County lack stability in their lives. Children are passed around from house to house, from family to family.
“They’re always changing, going from their aunt’s house to their grandmother’s house to another aunt or whatever,” McCutcheon said. “Sometimes they’re with people who aren’t even really family.”
McCutcheon’s organization stuffs backpacks with food and distributes them to kids on the last day of every week in three Pemiscot County schools. McCutcheon said attendance has improved on days the backpacks are available.
“Kids are coming to school more often. They’re doing better in school. They have less behavioral problems with them,” McCutcheon said.
Sports is an escape for some kids in South Pemiscot High School. Jackie Booker, South Pemiscot’s athletic director and volleyball coach, thinks a sports team has a positive influence because kids get a sense of belonging to a group.
“And it’s almost like, once their kids start playing in a sport, it all of a sudden becomes important for their kid to be there. You know, the parent all of a sudden, ‘Oh, you gotta’ be at school because you got a game today’,” Booker said. “It’s hard to cut when you know that, sometimes, this is the only thing that will keep them in school.”
Just down the street from the high school, retired teacher Deb House opened up an after-school club. Sitting at the crossroads of two gravel roads, between cotton and corn fields, “The Refuge” has arcade games, a pool table, skeeball, a concession stand and other fun stuff to attract school kids, including a quiet spot for mentors and tutors to help kids with homework.
“We have to take care of all of our children and our youth. We want them to all feel like it’s their place. It belongs to them. It’s their place,” House said. Over and over, House said this is a safe place for kids to escape.
House hopes her tutoring and mentoring programs will help kids believe that they, too, can grow up to become successful adults and can one day work as airline pilots, for example, or teachers.
“It’s about their life and every day is a step in that direction,” House said.
Some kids figure that out on their own, like Alli Jones, the girl who missed lots of days last year but has perfect attendance now. Her turnaround has been striking.
“I used to make C’s and all that, and now I’m making A’s and B’s,” she said.
Those good grades allow her to dream. She has her eyes set on college, where she wants to study nursing.