By Othor Cain,
On the day traditionally observed as a day of service, in honor of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., I traveled to Indianola, Miss. to meet 11 year old LaMarcus Burns and his mother.
LaMarcus, a fifth grade student at Carver Elementary School, a “D” rated school based on the 2017 Accountability Rankings recently released by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE). Carver sits within the Sunflower County Consolidated School District.
In 2012, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law Senate Bill 2330, that required the merging of the Sunflower County, Drew and the Indianola School Districts, all of which were under state control because of varied reasons including, accreditation issues, misuse of funds and sexual allegations. The law went into effect for the 2014 school year. A countywide school board was elected in November 2013.
Sunflower County Consolidated School District is currently ranked as an “F” district based on ratings from MDE.
On this cold wintry morning, LaMarcus, a special needs yet energetic young man was armed with a video game and a big bright smile when I met him at the offices of Sunflower County Parents and Students United, a community-non-profit organization that works to empower parents and help them navigate through the educational system, a place where LaMarcus and his mother Pearlean Nash are very familiar with. “This place and its executive director Betty Petty have become a safe haven for us,” Nash shared. “I was referred to Ms. Betty and I’m glad I made that call.”
Nash, like most parents in the Mississippi Delta want “more” for her son. “He’s a good kid and shouldn’t be punished because of his health conditions,” she shared. “His learning experience shouldn’t be hindered because teachers are not equipped to deal with a child with special needs.”
LaMarcuss, has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD) and is currently wearing a pacemaker. His mom describes him as a caring young man who lacks the ability to express how he’s feeling. “When he’s dealing with something or his feelings are hurt, he normally retreats to silence or shyness…he’s not going to tell you,” Nash said. “He suffers in silence.”
Watching LaMarcus and understanding his behavior, Nash would receive calls from his school constantly complaining about him being disruptive. “In this one particular teacher’s class, LaMarcus would always get in trouble and punished with inschool suspension,” she said. “It was chronic suspension.”
After repeated conversations with school officials where she shared medical records and asked for assistance, Nash was at her wits end. “I had done all that I could…all that I knew how to do,” she said. “I knew my child needed to be in school and I knew that I wasn’t getting any where.”
Nearly two years ago, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – an update to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – which provides new opportunities for states, districts and schools to ensure that all students have access to the crucial resources they need to be successful. The law also requires that schools and districts actively involve families, students and community members in key decisions about the future of schools and school districts.
The door is now open for advocates and parents across the country, to support students who need it the most. Understanding this new law and with a burning desire to help, Petty, gladly accepted the call and charge to help Nash and her son. “I’m an advocate for LaMarcus, a very bright young man and I’m committed to making sure he has all the resources and tools he needs to be successful,” Petty said. “I’m here to help his mom navigate through the system, to be in on the decision making process and not bear this burden alone.”
Nash says Petty and others have been a God-send. “LaMarcus just needs a little bit of extra help and guidance on his journey through school,” she said. “I’m on this journey with him and these groups that are helping are a blessing from God.”
LaMarcus, like most 5th graders, enjoys sports, video games and being outside. He wants a normal life. “I know what going to school means, I know I’ve got to get a good education,” he said in between highlights from his video game. “I’m just tired of getting in trouble for things I didn’t do or can’t control.”
LaMarcus loves math and his math teacher. “He makes it easy to understand and he makes it fun,” he said. “I wish all of my teachers were like that.”
Wanting to make sure that LaMarcus is getting a well-rounded and balanced education, several organizations are collaborating to ensure he succeeds. Operating under the banner Partners for Each and Every Child, a collaborative, nonpartisan network of education researchers, advocacy organizations and policy experts who are committed to educational excellence for each and every child. They work to advance sound educational policies that are responsive to the needs of at-risk, under-served and politically underrepresented students. This collaboration, beginning with LaMarcus in Sunflower County, and with a goal of working with every school district in the state.
Next week, in part two of our three part series, get to know the partners and the work they do.