Structured. Ambitious. Jubilant.
Those are the first words Amanda Johnson uses when asked to describe the culture at Clarksdale Collegiate.
“They represent the values we embrace and the learning environment we are creating – so kids can excel,” Amanda says.
As the school’s founder and executive director, Amanda is breaking new educational ground in the Delta region of Mississippi.
Clarksdale Collegiate became the first public charter school in rural Mississippi when it opened in 2018, serving 150 students from kindergarten through second grade.
In 2019, the school expanded to include third grade and will eventually serve 675 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Clarksdale Collegiate’s opening marked the culmination of years of hard work for Amanda, a longtime teacher and administrator, who was previously director of curriculum and instruction for KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.
She moved to Clarksdale in 2010 with her husband, a Mississippi native, and commuted across the Mississippi River for several years between work and home.
“I loved my job, but I felt a bit disconnected from both communities – Helena-West Helena and Clarksdale. I couldn’t get as involved as I wanted with the kids at KIPP, because once I went home, I couldn’t go back and forth,” Amanda says.
“I also really wanted to do the work in Clarksdale. Helena-West Helena and Clarksdale are similar communities, with similar needs.”
As time passed, Amanda said it became increasingly clear students in Clarksdale and Coahoma County needed more high-quality school options, such as KIPP offered in Helena-West Helena.
Clarksdale and Coahoma County have some of the highest poverty rates in the South, severe teacher shortages and some of Mississippi’s lowest-performing schools.
One data point stood out to Amanda – ACT scores averaged under 15.0 in the region, among the lowest in the state.
“It was just striking for me. Students have very few (college) options with ACT scores that low.” she says. “Our kids are capable of so much more if they are in an environment that prepares them for more.”
Mississippi passed pubic charter school legislation, but the law was initially too restrictive for students in sparsely populated rural areas. It prohibited them from crossing district lines to attend a charter school.
When the law was amended, Amanda immediately applied to start Clarksdale Collegiate and received approval in 2017.
“We had families that were excited and ready to see us open. We had no trouble recruiting students,” she says.
The Walton Family Foundation supported Clarksdale Collegiate with a start-up grant as part of our efforts to enable students in the Delta to reach their full potential.
The school follows a college preparatory curriculum because, Amanda says, “we believe all of our scholars can achieve at high levels” and thrive at post-secondary institutions.
It values a consistent school-day structure that sets clear routines, procedures and expectations for student behavior. Teachers use data-driven instruction and provide dedicated time for small group and individual supports.
“We set a high academic standard for students to achieve. That’s what we mean by ‘ambitious,’” she says.
“And when we talk about being a jubilant school, it’s because we believe learning can be fun. We want to provide opportunity for joy within every school day.”
The results have been impressive. In NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing, 81% of Clarksdale Collegiate scholars made or exceeded expected growth in mathematics, while 72% made or exceeded expected growth in reading.
Amanda is proudest of the school’s student retention rate, which was 94% at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
“There can be a lot of moving pieces in a first-year school with kids withdrawing. I feel proud about our parents being happy with the school and continuing to trust their children with us.”
“I hope we are a model for what high-quality education in a rural Delta town looks like,” Amanda says.
“I want to show people what is possible with kids regardless of their income status, regardless of where they are from. When they have great instruction and high expectations, they can do amazing things.”
Amanda feels both a professional and personal responsibility to ensure a great educational experience. Both of her daughters, currently in kindergarten and third grade, attend the school.
“The kids here, they have all the potential in the world,” she says. “The families - we support each other and work together. It feels very much like a community.”
A native of Arkansas, Amanda “fell in love with the Delta” because of its people and its history – as a hub of American arts and culture and a focal point of the civil rights movement.
“Culturally I feel just a really powerful connection, this being a majority African-American community in which generations of African-Americans have worked the land and made major contributions to this country,” she says.
“There’s also something about being in a small town. You can see the impact of your work. You see what happens when you teach one group of kids really well. I cannot wait for them to get older and keep learning, keep growing and see how they will literally change Clarksdale.”