Mississippi Delta Renegade
This leading man reinvents a community with a can-do attitude, serious fundraising and a media blitz
Superintendent Reggie Barnes arrived in Sumner, Miss., in 1994 with a few gray hairs in his beard. The elementary school was especially in need of help academically; it lacked a playground and wasn't connected to the town water or sewers.
When Barnes left seven years later, the district was firmly planted on the path to academic success. The tireless administrator, on the other hand, sported a white beard and an ulcer.
During his tenure in Sumner's three-school West Tallahatchie School District, Barnes typically worked 12- and 14-hour days. He distributed T-shirts with the slogan, "It's all about attitude. If you can believe it, you can achieve it." Besides his regular duties, Barnes happily mowed lawns and scrubbed toilets.
"You don't need to go to Africa, India or Appalachia to see Third World conditions. All you have to do is drive 100 miles south of Memphis to see poverty at its best and worst," Barnes says. He tried to construct a positive community--a key factor in the success (or failure) of a school.
Educating outsiders came first. "If anybody gave Reggie 10 minutes, he opened their eyes to the situation in the Delta," says current Superintendent Howard Hollins. Barnes secured funds for a health clinic, new classrooms, a playground and teacher housing. The initiatives began to pay off in 2000, when Bearden Elementary moved from "probationary" to "acceptable" status. A nickname--the renegade superintendent from the Mississippi Delta--began to stick.
Despite occasional run-ins with state politicians over funding inequities and a lack of community support, Barnes continued to lay the academic success groundwork. A $200,000 grant was used to purchase a new reading program. In addition, Barnes continually recruited new teachers because of the 50 percent annual attrition rate.
"Caught" on tape
The district's trials and triumphs were covered in two documentaries: Lallee's Kin, which explored poverty and education in the Mississippi Delta, and A Tale of Two Schools, a PBS special highlighting the national reading crisis.
The media spotlight was a mixed blessing. Barnes believes the outside world did not realize the severity of the situation in Sumner until Lallee's Kin was released in 2001. Outsiders who saw the film realized the hurdles that had to be crossed before teachers could address reading and writing.
Yet, disappointment followed A Tale of Two Schools. Barnes says he and other district leaders felt the film didn't delve into the reasons behind West Tallahatchie's relatively slow academic turnaround. What does shine through loud and clear is Barnes' belief that educators can't give up on children.
So why did he resign soon after that documentary was filmed? It wasn't so much giving up as letting go. When Bearden Elementary's state designation was raised, colleagues congratulated Barnes and advised him to move on. The continuing lack of community support for education, evidenced by the closing of two of the three local libraries, was also a factor. After placing his reins in the hands of Hollins, then his deputy superintendent, Barnes moved on.
In nearby Cleveland School District, his legendary drive is paying dividends. Executive Assistant Michelle Fuquay says Barnes has filled in the missing pieces of the puzzle in the district and "been able to bring the right people together." When he arrived, four of the 10 schools were about to be placed on probation. Now they're all classified as "successful."
Meanwhile, progress continues in West Tallahatchie. "We're still reaping the benefits from initiatives Reggie put in place," Hollins says. Reading levels are up, and staff still rely on Barnes as a role model. They also continue to feel inspired by his T-shirts.
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.