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Q&A: Reggie Barnes, Consultant, retired educator

Still making a difference

Delta native: Education is only way out of poverty

Former public schools superintendent Reggie Barnes has a lot to say on Mississippi’s educational system and systemic poverty. While there is no one answer to the poverty problem, he sees hope in workforce development and high school redesign. Barnes is now a consultant who volunteers his time assisting educators. He is a Greenville native and Delta State University graduate.

Q —  What is your background?
A — •  Superintendent of Cleveland School District, 2001-2004

•  Superintendent of West Tallahatchie School District, 1994-2001

•  Principal of Amite County High School, 1989-1992

•  PE teacher/coach, assistant principal at junior high school in Cleveland, 1987-1989

•  Dean of Men and track coach at Delta State University, 1974-1979

•  Other work experiences: Brick masonry; U.S. Census Bureau, field operations and cartography; Mississippi Youth Opportunities Unlimited, state director.

Q —  If you could do anything, what would you do?
A — I would take every one of these babies out of these impoverished households and build dormitories and hire nannies and raise them like I raise my own. That’s the attitude that has to be taken in order to make a difference.

There’s hope. There’s always hope. I still believe that life is what you make it. I believe that any person can be anything they want to be within certain limitations. My concerns are for the kids today who don’t have aspirations.

It’s not like Mississippi’s not trying, but as long as we’ve got racial division, the plantation mentality becomes reality.

Q —  What is Mississippi’s way out of poverty?
A — An adequate education is the only way out of poverty. There is a complacent attitude among local leadership: “These are our people, they’re used to it. They’ll be OK.”

There is a lack of funding and lack of resources, but there is also a lack of cultural development. Kids live 40 miles from the Mississippi River and have never seen it.

In a lot of these communities, sex was a recreation. Therefore, you had a lot of incest. You talk about third-world conditions …

It irked me to hear about missionary groups talking about going to Africa to other countries to help people. I would tell them all you have to do is cross the railroad track, and you can do this at home.

Q —  What is your view on vocational education?
A — All Mississippians can provide for themselves if you teach them how to use their hands and minds. We have forgotten about vocational education resources.

Get a community college certificate and you can start your own business. But the way our system is designed, a school that has an abundance of individuals who want to learn to how to be brick masons cannot get a brick masonry course unless another school shuts their program down.

Between ‘94 and ’98, there was a construction boom in Tunica County with casinos. But we did not have enough of a skilled workforce. If bricks are being laid on home, it is usually a Hispanic crew. I’m not knocking them and their opportunity to work and provide for themselves, but Mississippians could have those jobs.

We have forgotten to teach people how to use their hands to become laborers. We want everything done with the computer. And we still don’t have a robot that can lay a brick.

We need common skills for people to be able to survive. Workforce training is a way out, but we have leadership in the State of Mississippi that is following leadership at the national level that is saying, “No, we’re going to limit that and put dollars in high tech.”

Here in Mississippi, we’re content with being on the bottom of everything as long as we take care of the old-money people.

Q —  What do you think about state conservatorships, when the state takes over failing school districts?
A — Conservatorships have not been successful. The only issues that can be resolved from Jackson are financial issues. They lay off people and they stop buying. But education of the children is the problem.

The school districts that are surviving have stronger leadership.

Tunica and Oktibbeha were taken over into conservatorship in ‘96 or ‘97. There have been no improvements in test scores or leadership.

When superintendents are being micromanaged by trustees who have no idea what curriculum and instruction are all about and are mostly concerned about employment opportunities for their families and friends, we have lost sight of our focus.

Q —  What is high school redesign?
A — Why don’t we design a system that has some component that has the workforce training initiative included? Why aren’t we trying to enhance a child’s ability to have a decent life and employable skills, instead of everybody reaching the same goal of everybody being high-tech, when you know certain kids walking in that building are never going to go to college?

If we were to redesign what we wanted out kids to learn in our education process where there is instant success where they graduate from high school, then we’ll have the brick layer, the plumbers, the carpenters. We’re not trying to teach anybody a trade.

We can have different types of diplomas in the State of Mississippi if we wanted to. The “golden diploma” does not guarantee you a job when you get out.

Q —  Early childhood education?
A — It has to be a component of the K-12 solution. You can’t point a finger at the fifth-grade teacher. The problem started at home when the parent didn’t read to Johnny when he was a baby.


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