Helping Others Beat the Odds to a Brighter Future
Friday, February 14, 2020
by: Dr. Mario Willis

Section: From Contributors

Dr. Mario Willis, Superintendent, Hollandale School District in Washington County, Mississippi

Helping Others Beat the Odds to a Brighter Future

I was raised in a place that tells one of the nation’s most diverse stories of prosperity and hardship: The Mississippi Delta. It's a place considered by David Cohn as a land of extremes, geologically and culturally. Will Campbell characterized the extreme in a much different way. He defined the Delta as “a place of mean poverty and garish opulence.” Economically, the opulence grew equally but with a much different impact.
I was raised in a place that tells one of the nation’s most diverse stories of prosperity and hardship — the Mississippi Delta. It's a place considered by David Cohn as a land of extremes, geologically and culturally. Will Campbell characterized the extreme in a much different way. He defined the Delta as “a place of mean poverty and garish opulence.” Economically, the opulence grew equally, but with a much different impact. While others gained abundant wealth financially and through generational prosperity, the mean poverty alluded to by Campbell compounded for generations and plagued other families like hereditary cancer. I was born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a town founded by former slaves led by Isaiah Montgomery and Benjamin Green. But I grew up in a small town in Washington County called Hollandale, located 27 miles from the county seat of Greenville, Mississippi. I was educated at E.P. Simmons High School by a proud community of teachers in a school that served as the hub of social, political, athletic, civic and economic knowledge. Hollandale could be considered one of the most southern places on Earth, but in some people’s minds, Hollandale is definitely one of the most “southern places” in America.

My environment and journey forged a person who learned to persevere in the face of overwhelming adversity and remain fervently optimistic about the possibilities of the future. The mean poverty of the Mississippi Delta dominated every facet of my upbringing. Starting at eight years old, I worked in the cotton fields for my grandmother every summer to help my family and to generate income to purchase school clothes for the next year. Survival, not education, was the primary topic discussed in my family. Education was valued, but it came secondary; however, my mother, father and teachers saw my academic abilities, and they pushed me to strive for a better life through education.

What were the odds that a bus driver’s grandson, a cotton field worker and teenage father who grew up amid extreme rural poverty in a family tormented by drugs and alcohol, would earn five college degrees and become a school superintendent? For some, the chances were slim to none. In the face of overwhelming odds, I had two choices: focus my attention on the future or focus my attention on the present, thus dooming myself to the past. I chose the former. I am the person I am today because of my environment, which made me stronger and more determined to find a way out. Last year, I was named the 2019 Superintendent of the Year Award by the Delta Area Association for Improvement of Schools (DAAIS). Receiving this award was confirmation that I was in the right place and doing the right things at the right time for students who needed it most.

I am thankful for the lessons learned because now I have gained skills that can only be taught through the struggle of overcoming the “mean poverty” that has for centuries ravaged the Mississippi Delta. St. Jude’s Children's Hospital exists to eradicate cancer and help families fighting the disease; my mission is to eradicate the cancer of poverty, with a healthy dose of educational therapy.

Creating the Future Focused Student

I currently serve as the superintendent of the Hollandale School District. Hollandale School District is the smallest of the four districts in Washington County. The school district has approximately 700 students and 132 staff members. The campus is landlocked by fields of crops on all four sides. The sights and sounds of agriculture are normal for students in our district. “King Cotton” has dominated all facets of life in the Hollandale School District, directly and indirectly, as it relates to the economics of the district. Rural poverty is segregated from the human, financial and social resources that are available in urban centers. Industries like manufacturing, information technologies and healthcare are miles and miles away from the students. The people who work in those industries are in limited supply in rural towns like Hollandale because they have often moved away for better opportunities. It's a challenge to convince students and families that education is the path to improving their conditions. For some of our students, opportunities to escape poverty comes down to access and exposure.

Hollandale School District has implemented a strategy to mitigate the isolation, limited financial resources and limited social capital of children in the rural Delta. We started a program called “The Future Focused Student." The goal of this program is to provide students with the necessary access, knowledge and skills by connecting them to a network of individuals who can be a model of success for our students. To address access, professionals in varying fields share their career journeys, challenges they had to overcome and their current work environments. They also provide insights into the future career opportunities in their industries and preparation strategies for future employment in the field. For knowledge acquisition, students are encouraged to take classes aligned to their particular career interests. Hollandale School District partners with other school systems, local colleges and online course providers to ensure students have access to the knowledge needed for their career choices. For skill development, the district partners with businesses that provide internships to help students gain practical skills needed for their chosen career path. The district provides transportation for student internships to reduce the barrier of isolation for students.

Our goal is to build a network of experts that students can access to serve as models of success within their particular industry. While most urban middle class and wealthy communities prepare their students to obtain prominent roles in their respective communities, we have to prepare our students to leave our community because the job opportunities are not available. This strategy seems very similar to others around the country that focus on career and technical education, but we have provided more than just a program. We are providing hope and a way to break the grip of poverty. I champion change, but more importantly, I champion hope for the children in my community to illuminate possibilities beyond the limits of poverty.

Mississippi Moving in the Right Direction

The South, especially Mississippi, has a history characterized by the construct of the haves and the have-nots. This construct has reared itself in all facets of society, even education. Mississippi has realized this and progress toward addressing this construct has been implemented on all fronts, especially in education. As the Board President of the Delta Area Association for Improvement of Schools (DAAIS) and as District Two Board Member of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents (MASS), I have firsthand knowledge of the efforts superintendents are making to drastically enhance the educational quality for all students in Mississippi. I am extremely optimistic about the future of education in our state. For example, the state of Mississippi has earmarked funding for the Early Childhood Collaborative to help local communities provide an education for four-year-old students. While funding is not equal for all districts, the state has supported all districts in maximizing funding using a blended approach to provide opportunities for Pre-K students across the state.

Another example of the efforts in Mississippi is the College and Career Pathways Plan, which provides opportunities for all students by creating pathways that are recognized in community colleges and universities across the state. The result of this coordination between Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), Mississippi Community and Junior Colleges (CJCs) and the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) is that students are not restricted, and all students have access to receive credit from each post-secondary institution attended for completed high school and/or vocational centers. While many efforts have been made in the past to improve education, I am increasing hopeful about the future because superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents are working throughout the state extremely hard to create possibilities for students to escape the cancer of poverty and create pathways to opportunities for our children.
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