Can Poor, Rural Schools Reverse Their Fortunes?

At first glance the town square in Holly Springs, Miss., resembles a Norman Rockwell portrait of small-town America. A stately brick courthouse towers over the center of the square, its surrounding streets lined with modest storefronts and dozens of American flags flapping in a hot Southern autumn breeze.

But a closer look reveals a less picturesque scene. Several stores are empty, their windows bare and steeped in shadows, their customers drawn to the Wal-Mart at the edge of town or to the suburban shops springing up outside Memphis, Tenn., a half-hour away. Worn brick and faded paint hint at neglect, and empty sidewalks underscore the community’s economic doldrums.

For years, residents and community leaders have debated what has kept economic development away and perpetuated Marshall County’s 20-percent poverty rate. One argument, in particular, is gaining currency: The public schools are part of the problem -- an obstacle to a better future.

How can that be? Criticism began mounting toward the schools after Nissan opened a $1.4 billion assembly plant in nearby Canton, Toyota announced plans to build a $1.3 billion plant near Tupelo, and dozens of satellite industries started moving into northern Mississippi. Holly Springs and Marshall County seemed prime contenders for development. Land is cheap and plentiful, taxes are low, and there’s easy access to major highways. Yet, industry after industry has bypassed the county for other sites, and company officials quietly let it be known that the quality of the schools was one reason.

“There is a perception of the school system that is not good,” says Bill Renick, executive director of the Marshall County Industrial Development Authority (IDA). “Some schools are improving, but competition for economic development is tremendous. Everyone has a good piece of land, and everyone has a good workforce, and everyone has equal tax incentives, so the deciding factor then comes down to education.”

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