Every weekday, school buses emblazoned with “MUMFORD ISD” roll their way north on a winding farm-to-market road lined by sparse, tractor-dotted fields. They pick up children in neighboring Hearne and take them back to Mumford’s public schools.

Mumford, an unincorporated community 25 miles from College Station, has 300 residents, but its schools have nearly twice as many students — almost all of them live in nine nearby school districts. The highest number comes from Hearne Independent School District.

Hearne ISD administrators and teachers see the Mumford buses around town, constant reminders of what they’re up against. They’ve long insisted — in private and in courtrooms — that the transfers are bleeding them dry financially, sapping them of high-achieving students and contributing to the district’s low performance over the last couple of decades.

For years, Mumford has been a high-performing, racially diverse school district. Meanwhile, Hearne has become a majority black and Hispanic district, and its elementary school has been low performing for longer than almost any school in Texas. Unless Hearne ISD turns things around in the next couple of years, the state will take over the district or forcibly close its elementary school.

The conflict between the districts is part of a bigger story of survival as tiny rural districts like Mumford and Hearne compete for a dwindling number of students and the state funding attached to them, while their residents continue to leave for better opportunities in Texas’ burgeoning cities and suburbs.

It’s also an example of the state’s long history of allowing white parents to keep their children from being educated in the same classrooms as black and Hispanic children. A 1970 federal court ruling ordered the Texas Education Agency to prevent student transfers that worsened segregation in either school district. The agency struggled to enforce that mandate.

Hearne ISD officials sued the education agency and Mumford ISD in 2003 for defying the federal court order in a last-ditch effort to keep white students from leaving. A federal judge initially ruled for Hearne, but a federal appeals court in 2006 overturned that decision and found no evidence of “discriminatory intent,” clearing the state of any responsibility to halt or monitor the transfers — and by 2008 the TEA had largely stopped its monitoring.

According to state education officials, Texas school districts have been sending school buses for years to pick up kids within other districts’ boundaries without a formal agreement, despite the fact that it’s a violation of state law. It’s a practice that both state agencies and the Legislature have failed to stop. The TEA began handing out waivers to the law this year to districts that asked.

Mumford ISD Superintendent Blayne Davis said almost all the Hearne students who attend Mumford schools are low-income Hispanic and white students. Mumford ISD received a waiver to transport transfer students this year.

“There is not an issue between Mumford and Hearne ISD,” he said in an email. “Parents have a choice as to where they want their children to attend school, and yes, a lot of parents do choose Mumford.”

That choice, Hearne ISD officials have argued, has caused shrinking enrollment, a drop in state funding and a hard-to-shake reputation of being a bad district that has complicated its ability to hire and retain quality teachers. At the same time, the district still has to meet state achievement standards to keep its doors open.

District leaders remain optimistic and say they have made progress keeping good teachers, partnering with local universities to train their teachers and landing state grants to offer students advanced academic programs. But that hasn’t yet translated to significant academic improvement, and the district has faced skepticism that its recent rating boost reflects real progress.

Hearne Superintendent Adrain Johnson, who joined the district a few years ago to lead the most recent effort to turn it around, said he welcomes the challenge of competing with neighboring districts.

“I just want it to be fair,” he said.

Desegregation, then pressure to resegregate

When Norris McDaniel graduated from Hearne ISD in 1960, the district still educated white and black students in separate schools. Things hadn’t changed by the time he returned as a teacher in 1966 — a dozen years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling mandated desegregated schools — thanks to racist resistance by Texas school districts and complicit state officials.

Hearne finally desegregated in 1968, and McDaniel was reassigned to teach at the newly integrated high school, becoming one of only four black teachers at the school. He remembers hearing white parents openly admit they didn’t want their children to attend integrated schools — memories he would share in court testimony decades later as part of Hearne ISD’s lawsuit against Mumford ISD and the state education agency.

School districts’ resistance to integrate led to a landmark 1970 ruling by East Texas federal judge William Wayne Justice, who placed nearly the entire state under court order and threatened to yank funding and accreditation from defiant school districts — one of the largest series of desegregation orders in U.S. history. Justice ordered the TEA to function as a monitoring arm, holding the agency responsible for ensuring school districts became — and remained — racially balanced.

Six years later, when McDaniel was hired as principal of Hearne’s formerly all-black Blackshear Elementary School, he said resistance from the white community to integration was still in full force. He said pressure from other principals convinced him to create a policy grouping students by ability level, separating high-achieving students from those who weren’t doing well. The principal of the other elementary school was already doing it, he said.

But it also resulted in racial resegregation within the school, McDaniel said, with classrooms of mostly black students separated from classrooms of white students. McDaniel had read research showing that could harm them socially and academically, so in 1985 he ended the practice.

The backlash from parents was swift and intense, he said: “They wanted their children with their friends, and they wanted certain teachers to teach their children.”

Parents warned McDaniel that if he didn’t reverse his decision, they would transfer their children to other districts. McDaniel gave into the pressure for a couple of years before reversing his decision, and by the early 1990s Hearne, was losing more and more students — primarily to Mumford. By the end of the decade, the transfers numbered in the hundreds.

For years, Mumford officials also circulated notices in Hearne — and published them in the local paper — that they were seeking high school transfers who had passing test scores and no previous discipline or attendance problems, which Hearne officials argued targeted the highest-performing students.

Among the parents who transferred their kids to Mumford were Hearne school board members.

From 1990 to 2000, Hearne’s white student population dropped by 68%. It wasn’t just happening in Hearne; across the state and the country, white families were leaving integrated, diverse public schools for whiter public schools or private schools.

McDaniel was confronted with the financial implications of the shrinking enrollment when he became Hearne ISD’s first black superintendent in 1996. As state funding left with each student, administrators found they were unable to afford enough teachers to keep classes small, which became more crucial as an increasing percentage of the remaining students had bigger academic needs.

The damage wasn’t just financial. McDaniel noted that white flight left Hearne with a racial stigma of being “basically a black school district,” with parents saying the district wasn’t safe or high quality enough for their kids. McDaniel remembered one parent who had just moved into the community telling him, “I just heard there were a lot of black people in Hearne.”

Hearne ISD received its first low state rating in 2001, due to the high percentage of student dropouts. In McDaniel’s eyes, the rating was directly connected to the transfers: The district now had a higher percentage of students who struggled to read and less money to support them. By the mid-2000s, Mumford ISD was running five buses into Hearne’s boundaries to pick up students, then-Superintendent Pete Bienski testified during the trial.

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McDaniel stepped down as superintendent in 2002, and the next year, Hearne ISD filed its lawsuit against Mumford and the TEA, claiming both had violated Justice’s original order to desegregate Texas schools. With a lifetime of firsthand knowledge about Hearne’s schools, McDaniels was one of the district’s main witnesses, and in 2005, Justice found Mumford responsible for resegregating Hearne’s schools and the TEA at fault for allowing it.

Justice wrote that the transfers changed the racial composition of Hearne ISD “to the extent that the racial profile of Hearne’s schools does not resemble the racial profile of the community.”

Mumford and the TEA took the case to a federal appeals court, which overruled Justice, finding that Mumford had not intended to discriminate in pursuing Hearne students. In the ruling, Judge Edith Jones said Justice had ignored the fact that most of the students who left Hearne were Hispanic, not white, and neither district was at risk of becoming a “one-race” school district. (At the time, Mumford ISD was 16% black, 48% Hispanic, and 37% white; Hearne ISD was 56% black, 32% Hispanic and 12% white.)

By then, federal courts across the country had become less involved in enforcing decades-old desegregation orders, often ruling that school districts and states had done all they could to abolish historical remnants of segregation.

“The battle between Hearne and Mumford,” Jones wrote, “is fought for transfer dollars rather than racial justice.”

Warnings from the state

Adrain Johnson watched the lawsuit unfold with great interest. At the time, he was working for the TEA, doling out warnings to other low-performing school districts at risk of state penalties. He had expected Mumford’s appeal to fall flat. “To my knowledge, the courts and state had been pretty consistent in saying you can’t create a minority district,” he said.

In 2016, a decade after the ruling, Johnson arrived in Hearne ISD to become its sixth superintendent in as many years, replacing a former superintendent who had fought bitterly with the school board. The task before him was mammoth.

Administrators, weighed down with the challenge of teaching students the basics, had failed to provide opportunities for advanced classes or dual-credit courses — standard offerings in wealthier schools. The staff, in the words of one veteran elementary school teacher, felt like they were “winging it and hoping for the best” in the absence of firm leadership, especially as the percentages of students in special education and those who were learning English grew.

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To make matters worse, soon after Johnson arrived, he received a scathing letter from the state — similar to the ones he had written to low-performing districts as a state employee — warning that it might shut down or take over Hearne’s schools due to past dysfunction and poor academic performance.

The experience of leading a beleaguered school district was not a new one for Johnson. Over his long career, he’d been superintendent of two other school districts, both majority black and Hispanic, that later were absorbed into larger, wealthier districts, unable to overcome numerous financial and academic challenges.

Johnson knew he had to convince the state to give Hearne another chance before the district began hemorrhaging experienced teachers. “No normal person would not wonder, ‘Do I need to make a career change here because this place may not be here?’” he said.

Hearne ISD Superintendent Adrain Johnson spoke to community members and parents about the district’s progress and future during a town hall meeting in September.  Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune

Johnson appealed the decision and called regular all-staff meetings throughout his first year to reassure the staff as they anxiously awaited news about the fate of their schools. He didn’t dwell on the students who were boarding buses for Mumford ISD every day. “What was on my mind as I came in to lead this district was, ‘Let’s do as good a job as we can for the children and parents who stayed with Hearne,’” he said.

The appeal worked that year, but the state sent more warnings the next two years when the schools had not improved. To stave off state penalties, Johnson and Hearne school board members attended required training on how to manage their schools and partnered with a nonprofit that brought in educators from nearby universities and school districts to train their teachers.

Those steps got Hearne a temporary reprieve from a state takeover, buying time for it to make real improvements.

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Throughout the tumult, parents had to make tough decisions on whether to stay.

Ahnjayla Taylor, a mom of five kids in Hearne schools, was devastated when the state warning came out, worried she would have to transfer her kids before the schools shut down. A 1995 alumna of Hearne’s schools, she had no doubts her children would succeed in Hearne, just as she had.

“My mom was a single mom, on welfare all my life,” Taylor said. “I learned how to be involved and do as much as I can do.” She’s happy she stuck with Hearne and said she’s talked to other parents who left, thinking other schools would solve their problems, and ultimately regretted the decision.

Charles Williams showed up to a recent community meeting to hear about the progress Hearne’s schools had made, with two sons in tow who attend charter schools miles away in College Station. A Hearne native, he said he wants the schools to succeed, but he seemed hesitant about transferring his kids back in. “As parents, you do your best to look at the productivity of the school,” he said.

A higher rating raises questions

Hearne has managed to make some progress in improving its state rating, easing some of the pressure — but not eliminating the threat of a state takeover.

This year, the district received a B rating from the state, an astonishing jump from its F rating the previous year.

“You’ll hear a lot of questions about how we scored a B. Let me tell you how we scored a B: the old-fashioned way. We worked for it,” Johnson preached to a room of parents and community leaders this fall.

But state data doesn’t show soaring academic performance to match the rating. Students’ reading and math test scores, as well as their graduation rates, improved somewhat compared with the previous year, but no students scored high enough to earn college credit on their Advanced Placement exams, and a handful of graduates scored well enough on their SATs or ACTs to be considered ready for college.

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The dramatic improvement appears tied to one thing: Nearly half of Hearne ISD’s graduates reportedly enlisted in the military, up from zero the previous year. That boosted the district because the state gives school districts higher ratings if they show that high school students are prepared for college, careers or the military.

Statewide, 4.3% of high school graduates report enlisting in the military.

Johnson said the higher grade represents the district’s greater diligence in accurately tracking students’ postgraduation plans — with the help of Moak Casey, a high-powered Austin-based education consulting firm. Because the district had 51 graduates that year, just 25 seniors enlisting significantly improved the district’s rating, he said.

The Houston Chronicle first reported Hearne’s jump in military enlistment and its subsequent rating boost and raised questions about whether the district gamed the system. The state education agency is looking into similar trends in districts across the state.

“I respect different viewpoints, but the reality is we play by the rules, we work hard at what we do and we’re proud of what we achieved,” Johnson said. “We do things right because we realize that whether it’s test administration or documenting our students’ information, we work at that very diligently. We have gotten better since I’ve been here.”

Hearne High School freshman LaBrawn Gooden, 15, speaks with U.S. Marine Corps recruiter Sgt. Kenneth Want after school. Gooden said he wants to join the Marines or the Air Force.  Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune

At a career fair this fall, 15-year-old LaBrawn Gooden walked with his grandmother around the gymnasium talking to recruiters from the Marines — a path that other members of his family have followed.

He praised the high school’s new art program, led by a new teacher who commutes an hour and a half every day from Austin, and brushed off any negative comments outsiders might have about Hearne.

“It doesn’t bother me because we’ve changed a lot,” he said.

Before Johnson was superintendent, the district didn’t offer students any opportunities to take the SAT or ACT — tests needed to get into most four-year colleges. For the first time two years ago, the district bused students to Franklin ISD, a wealthier, whiter district just north, to take the SATs, bumping the percentage of seniors who took those tests from a third to nearly half. Last year, the first year the tests were offered at the high school, 54% of seniors took them.

Whether or not it’s based on better academics, the higher state rating is a powerful marketing tool for Hearne as it battles to boost enrollment. Powered by the momentum of a B rating, Johnson gave a rousing speech to community members in the elementary school cafeteria last month, inviting them to celebrate the new state grants and partnerships that he hopes will lead to a renewal at Hearne schools.

He criticized the state for repeated threats to shut down Hearne’s schools while it insists that they improve as quickly as possible. “I came to the district, and the first thing they say is, ‘We’re going to close you down. We’re going to turn you out,’” he said. “And they wonder why some people leave Hearne.”

Johnson walked back and forth in the well-lit room, determined to rally the people who still believed in their long-struggling district: “Hearne’s here today, we’re going to be here tomorrow and we’ll be here forever more.”

Trying to save Hearne Elementary

The main thing that stands between Hearne and a clean bill of health from the state is Hearne Elementary School. The F rating the school received in August put a target on its back: It must get a passing rating in the next couple of years, or the state could take over the entire school district.

Nearly all of the district’s 465 elementary students get free or reduced-price meals, and the school has seen a string of principals come and go, each with plans to improve things. None of them stuck.

Under the leadership of a new principal, Stephanie Heinchon, who started last year, the school began helping teachers develop new ways to help English learners and kids with disabilities to read earlier. Students are now expected to track their own progress in preparation for the state’s standardized test.

And a partnership with a new nonprofit, Hearne Education Foundation, has provided teachers with more opportunities to get training from educators and academics in nearby schools and universities like Longview ISD and Texas A&M University.

Teachers Debra Jenkins (left), Fawn Simpson and Antonio Redmon plan for six weeks of teaching and learning in a process called unit mapping.  Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune

Students like sixth graders Curtisia Hall and Jose Guerrero say they’re feeling more excited about school and are motivated to get better grades and sit still in class by a Harry Potter-style “house” system. Competing against the other houses, students get points for following instructions in the hallway and for answering questions correctly in class. That excitement has spread to some of the parents, who use an online app to check in with teachers about the competition and ensure their kids are prepared.

Debra Jenkins, a star third grade teacher and Hearne alumna, says she knows the history of what happened with Mumford and understands that outside forces play a role in the school’s trajectory. But she refuses to spend too much time thinking about it.

“I know I can control what I’m putting in front of kids every day. … I want them to love reading,” she said.

Jenkins lives in College Station, where her children go to school, and drives more than 25 miles to teach at Hearne. She said she’s offended when people question why she stayed.

“Because I’m from here,” she said, “I do want these kids to win.”