Most of Quitman County's vast farms are owned by whites, and nearly all white parents send their children to private schools--including Delta Academy in the town of Marks, just down the road from Lambert. At Quigley's school, 98 percent of students qualify for the free lunch program. Some live in modest but comfortable homes. And others? "I've been to some of [my students'] houses," Quigley said. "None of the lights work. Some of my kids don't have their own bed, or they pull out a bed in their trailer that they sleep on with their brother. There's no desk, no place to work."
Sixty-eight percent of this year's Quitman County Elementary third graders, including Quigley's students from last year, failed the state assessment test for their grade. The school had the worst test results in Mississippi.
School officials point out that the test, a nationally normed assessment, includes references that are unfamiliar to students who probably have never left even this part of the Delta. But Jordan and teachers also acknowledge the challenges they face: shoestring budgets, a teacher shortage so dire that positions go unfilled (even with Teach for America's assistance), a depressed economy, chronic teen pregnancy and children who enter school as virtual blank slates. "We have a lot of babies having babies," said veteran kindergarten teacher Jewel Killibrew. "That's a lot of our problem. They don't know how to care for them."
Enter people like Quigley: young, smart, earnest and inexperienced. Also working at Quitman Elementary are Teach for America teachers from Williams College, the University of Virginia and other prestigious schools. In nearby Marks, Tyler Peterson '00 is teaching special education at Quitman County High School.
Quigley said he got support and materials from other teachers when he arrived, but as of February he had not been evaluated in his classroom. Putting together his kindergarten curriculum, he pulled in techniques he had heard about from other schools, from books, from relatives. "In my mind this is what kindergarten should look like," he said.
That day it looked like a busy place. Quigley's charges sat on the carpet, talked about the visitor to the classroom. They spelled "February" aloud and then sang enthusiastically about the days of the week to the tune of the The Addams Family.
"There's Monday and there's Tuesday, there's Wednesday and there's Thursday . . . "
Quigley sang along; it was apparent he was not in The Colby Eight.
There was a snack--animal crackers handed out by assistant teacher Maudie Stanford, Quigley's right hand. Quigley read aloud from Frog and Toad Are Friends. Students selected painted clothespins that designated different activity centers: a play kitchen, blocks, a computer game, painting at an easel. All the while, discipline was meted out through a system of cards that were moved in a wall rack. Paddling is accepted and encouraged in Mississippi schools, but Quigley said he has done it only twice, as a last resort.
That day the most serious punishment was a time out. Mrs. Stanford and a visitor were enlisted to help students, but still the room rang out with calls of "Mr. Quigley!"
"It's so amazing, the amount of things to manage," Quigley said. "Colby was hard but this is much harder."
In fact, all of the pithy social problems facing this school tend to be forgotten when the room is full of 5-year-olds. Then the challenges are the same as those faced by teachers in any classroom: keeping all of the students constructively occupied; crafting activities and lessons appropriate to a broad range of abilities; making sure kids don't miss the bus. And while one staffer, parent coordinator Dwight Barfield, praised Quigley and the other Teach for America teachers for their energy, innovation and community spirit, Quigley said he sometimes still wonders whether he is teaching his kids anything.
"Some days, no," Quigley said. "Some days I felt like I basically stunk as a teacher and my kids weren't learning anything. . . . There were a couple of days, I was just like, call my mom or somebody and say, 'I'm not succeeding at all.' That regardless of what I do, my kids are going to return to the worlds that they live in."
And good days?
"On my good days I feel great. I feel like, it will be something little. Like you see a kid who couldn't read and he'll read a whole sentence. You feel like the kids are really responding to the attention and the love you're giving them. . . .
"I had one kid after Christmas break [last year]. One of the best moments I had was this kid. I sent post cards from Boston to all my kids when I was home for Christmas. He came into school the day we got back and he said, 'Mr. Quigley, you wrote me a post card.' And he proceeded to recite the post card exactly as I wrote it, line for line. He had memorized the thing, he had read it so many times."
Progress, it seems, is measured in small triumphs. At Quitman Elementary, Quigley waves the star pointer, but there is no magic wand, just children waiting expectantly to be taught.
"I can spell 'coffee' Mr. Quigley," one little boy said proudly. "C-H-C-D-E.""Close, Jamal," Quigley said, giving the boy an affectionate pat on the shoulder. "Very close."
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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