We’re Above It: Public Education, Mississippi, & Daniel Kees

by Alex Melnick
Arts & Life Editor

Daniel Kees, a junior political science major, has quite the following. There’s a fan page, constant photo blogging and even faculty participation. The wry, self-effacing Mississippi native is known by many names, but the fans call him 1484479_926588020687778_452773028124087296_nKeesus.

Kees is  a great person by all qualifications, a kind friend and a dedicated student in addition to possessing a surprisingly sharp sense of humor and on-point tastes. All of these things are important, no doubt, but Kees is more than “Keesus” or any tongue-in-cheek fandom can conjure up or project. Kees is soft spoken, and deferential until he’s not—and the “not,” I think, is the most important part of Daniel Kees’ personality.

Valedictorian of his 2012 class at the public Vicksburg High School, Kees went on to be the policy intern at Mississippi First, a non-profit and non-partisan education advocacy and research organization that specializes in creating change through democracy and thus reaches this aim by “producing and providing documents and resources that will help to raise public awareness around key education reform issues in Mississippi.” Much of Kees’ job revolves around his efficacy at student organizing—a claim he, of course, denies.  (He actually didn’t initially apply for the internship because he didn’t feel he was a strong student organizer. Yet he’s been a powerhouse for MS Young Democrats, the Student Body Association, and Challenge over the last three years.)  Kees most recently organized students from Ole Miss and other Mississippi colleges together for Mississippi First’s Capitol Day, which involves college students (excluding our conspicuously absent student body) across the state taking a trip to the state legislature to deliver handmade valentines that contain letters stating their support of Common Core.  The letters were presented to the senate floor and the house, and Kees felt that they “definitely made our presence known and gave voice to an important issue.”

Kees went to private school in Mississippifor eight years, but graduated from a public high school. This means he received a quality elementary and middle school education, but “very much had the typical Mississppi high school experience.”  This fact ultimately gave him the courage to apply to the internship. What Kees perceived he lacked in skills, he made up for in passion. (To invoke the theme that the Arts & Life section has been using heavily this year: This is also a Mississippi story.)  Kees said he understood deeply why Mississippi needed new education standards like Common Core from sitting in a classroom as teenager where he was acutely aware that his educational quality was much further below his peers nationally.

“The most obvious thing that’s rarely talked about,” Kees said referring to the disparities between Mississippi and national public education, “is race. Mississppi’s public school system is quite notably segregated.” Kees went onto explain that he went to the so-called “black” high school in Vicksburg, but his mother taught at the “white” high school. “Even in the black high school, honors classes were almost exclusively white,” Kees said. “There was not really a criteria to be an honors student; you simply had to ask. So…. The only students that knew to ask were the white students.” Similar stories abound in many public school districts that are underfunded. When Kees attended Vicksburg High School, there were roughly 1,300 kids enrolled. It was 80 percent black, but in honors classes there were only white children.

“Secondly, there is the quality of the facility and the teachers,” Kees continued. “I mean, the facility was fine. Nothing was run down, but the textbooks were 20 to 30 years out of date.”  In his high school, there were often not enough textbooks for students. “I remember that in a math class, you had to use two different textbooks to do the homework and if you didn’t have the two textbooks…” He broke off with a genuinely amused laugh. (That’s another important thing about Kees: he has a sense of humor about absurdity. I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s so excellently suited for advocating policy.)  “As most students did not—I didn’t!  You were just out of luck!”

Kees also said that students could tell that the textbooks themselves were very low quality, and actually had incorrect answers in the back of the book.  Kees felt that what the schools traded off in quality they cashed in for administrative pay. “One of the most interesting things I would always hear about occasionally is that the school would get a grant or that someone would give a donation very rarely but you would never see improvements,” Kees said. “I know that this money was not going into the school. It wasn’t even going into athletics! I have no idea where it went.”

To compound the mess, Kees also said that Mississippi “trails the rest of the country in teacher pay.” This creates less incentive for people to go into the profession in this state, which in turn creates teachers who “don’t really want to be there and some who are even vocal about it. There were some who even said that teaching wasn’t their chosen occupation, but it was the easiest to get into.”

This deficit in teachers also creates a situation (very common in public schools) where teachers are simply not qualified to instruct in the subjects they are teaching in. Kees said a high school geometry teacher of his was actually in the process of getting her masters in elementary education as she was teaching high schoolers math.  “It is extremely problematic because then you have someone trying to teach you things who doesn’t know that level of math! It hinders progress in the classroom, it lowers student moral and it makes it difficult academically.”

“I transferred out of public high school for about a year to go to a smaller private school because in Algebra class, I was failing all my quizzes because [the teacher’s] answers were wrong. She would work out the quiz the night before, but she was working so quickly her answers were wrong,” Kees says.

Kees’ mother worked at a local community college, and she ended up taking all of his quizzes to her colleagues to check.  They confirmed he was correct. “It’s difficult, because even when you’re doing well academically, if your teachers are wrong… It’s cyclical.” Kees says that if he could only have one education policy wish granted, he would want to have better quality of instruction.  “As a teacher, you only really need a book and a chalkboard. I had awful teachers with means and wonderful teachers with no means.”

Mississippi notoriously underfunds its schools, and has only twice since the 1997 founding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program actually met the necessary budget for proper public school funding statewide.  “No one is taking an interest… and there’s the school-to-prison pipeline.” Kees groaned. “That’s…a different topic entirely, but it was evident in my school. Students were suspended over the most trivial of infractions. Sometimes literally just a misunderstanding about having a pencil ended in a suspension.” Kees, never one to allow for injustice, counseled his peers while he was in high school and tried to ready them for speaking to hostile administrators. “It did not earn me [esteem] in high places,” Kees said, rolling his eyes flippantly. This is the important “not” in his personality I was talking about, the fact that Kees is diligent and pugnacious (actually an education administrators’ dream) but can absolutely be stronger than a shouting peer by just raising his voice to room level. Kees is kind, but he’s been far too familiar with Mississippi school systems to ever suffer fools gladly.

That’s how he got involved with Mississippi First, in a nutshell.  Before his internship, he never saw himself going into education but over the last two years, he’s found himself much more drawn to it. “I’ve always known it was a huge deciding factor in a child’s trajectory in Mississippi (especially for students of color), but I’ve found it to be an increasing passion of mine.  Everything starts with access to quality of education.,” Kees said.  He hopes to go on to work in the Mississippi Department of Education as a summer job and to perhaps even participate in Teach for America after college. But for now, he’s at Mississippi First. The organization plans events semester by semester, and having just finished Capitol Day, is back to planning new ideas.  “We’re a non-partisan organization, so we try to be above the bullshit (that’s one time I don’t mind profanity on paper) and students need to be engaged in this.”  The students currently in the Mississippi public school systems are the next work force, and Kees believes that without education reform, this work force will be a “disenfranchised and disillusioned” one. “Education is a human rights issue. I implore my peers to just do some research on Common Core- love it, hate it; just know what it is first.”

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