Principal of Impoverished School Sees Failure as Opportunity

In a special Thanksgiving conversation, hear from people who are making a difference in the lives of others. Versa Brown is the principal of the Como Elementary School in Como, Miss. Brown discusses challenges in leading the impoverished rural school and shares her journey from the cotton fields to fulfilling her grandmother's dream.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, we will have some music to feed your soul.

But first, Thanksgiving is meant to be spent in gratitude. So, we decided to spend sometime this Thanksgiving holiday to talk with and about people to whom we are grateful. One of those people is Versa Brown. She's the principal of Como Elementary School in Mississippi. Mississippi ranks last among all states in education testing standards, and Como Elementary ranks among the lowest in Mississippi. In other words, according to the conventional measures, the school is failing across the board.

But Principal Versa Brown sees more than just failing test scores in her school and the children who come there every day. She joins us by phone from Como Elementary School.

Welcome, Principal Brown. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. VERSA BROWN (Principal, Como Elementary School, Mississippi): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, we wanted to talk with you because we read a story about you, and it is a tough story to tell. You have some trouble attracting top teachers. Many of your students have a lot of depravation that they're dealing with, even before they get to school, and the building needs repairs. And you can't even leave the grounds of the school during the day because you don't have an assistant principal. So I'd like to ask you, how do you keep at it?

Ms. BROWN: I just keep thinking about, I'm here for the children and I'm going to do it no matter what, and I know one day it's going to all pay off. And I'm just thankful to be a principal, to be placed with those people who need me most. And it keeps me going.

MARTIN: How did you get into education to begin with? I understand that you have kind of an interesting story yourself.

Ms. BROWN: Yes. I want to say my second parent was my grandmother, my mom's mother, and she was illiterate - could not read nor write. However, every day she would have me to read to her - I didn't know the lady couldn't read but she knew how to correct me. And she would always tell people that girl's going to be a fessor(ph). So it was kind of like a curse. However, I became a dropout. I finished 10th grade and dropped out in the 11th. And I thought I wanted to be in law enforcement. I thought I wanted to be in nursing. I tried working outside of what I was used to, which was the cotton fields, and obtained a job as a nurse's assistant - that wasn't me.

MARTIN: But you did work in a cotton field at one point, didn't you, as I understand?

Ms. BROWN: I've worked in a cotton field. I worked in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. I worked in the celery fields in Florida, went to North Carolina by tramp(ph) bus, which is a bus you catch at the employment service, and go to work. But having come back to Mississippi at age 33, I believe the wages were $2-and-something an hour, and I knew I had to do something. I was working two jobs then. I've got a job as a nurse's assistant at a nursing home, (unintelligible). And I worked during the day at Staple Cotton, still working with cotton. And I decided I better do better; I need to do better. By that time, I did have a son.

So I took the GED and I went to Mississippi Valley State University, and I majored in education. I was always practicing teaching children always, and children have always been my passion. I love them. And so I got my bachelors of science degree in elementary education from Mississippi Valley State University, received my masters of education from Union University, and my educational specialist in leadership from Freed-Hardeman University.

MARTIN: And I understand that you're studying for your doctorate now.

Ms. BROWN: I'm studying for my doctorate from Capella University.

MARTIN: Wow. Why do you think that you are able to stick with it when so many other people don't? I mean, faced with the conditions that you're dealing with every day, a lot of people would just turn right around and get back in their car.

Ms. BROWN: It has to be more than a paycheck. It has to be your heart. And I'm not one no matter where I go or where I am, what my status may be, I'm going to remember when. And you must remember when, and you must always remember that the Bible says the poor will always be with us - you can't eliminate it, but you can be a part of it. And joy comes later. And I love children.

MARTIN: What would be the one thing, one change you would make if you could have whatever you wanted for Como? What would be the one thing that you would want - if you could wave your wand, what would you want for those children?

Ms. BROWN: I would want my children to have parents who want them to be educated. I would wave a wand and change some of my parents. But most of all, I would change the building here because where I educate my children is important for the education that they receive. I would wave a wand and reconstruct my entire building. I would put a dropped ceiling in and I would paint the inside of the building, and have books everywhere - just (unintelligible) around the school.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, do you have a functional library?

Ms. BROWN: I have a very small library. We do utilize it. And since The Washington Post, many people are sending books. To celebrate Thanksgiving, our children used a book to get into a ballgame. We'd thought them about giving is not always about the money, but it's about giving.

MARTIN: Well, what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Ms. BROWN: I am thankful for my grandmother's wish. I'm not a professor. If she - I don't know if that's how she meant it to be, but I'm helping someone. And I know my grandmother looked up to a professor as being someone who is in charge and able to lead. And I'm thankful for being able to help.

MARTIN: Well, Versa Brown, we are thankful for you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you for being thankful for me, and I'm thankful for having 435 students, plus 32 teachers and a staff and faculty of people who are thankful for my presence every day.

MARTIN: Versa Brown is the principal of Como Elementary School in Como, Mississippi. She joined us by phone from her office.

Principal Brown, thank you so much again for everything you do, and Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving to you.

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