SIKESTON, Mo. -- Bulldogs snarl from store windows and car bumpers, from sweatshirts and letter jackets. Football and basketball games, where the menacing school mascot is everywhere, are Sikeston's most popular events on Friday nights.
It's all evidence of the strong connection between the public school system and the community it serves.
But the city is one of contrasts, a place where agriculture remains king but new retail businesses sprout up regularly.
There are darker examples. The district's five elementary schools are in polarized neighborhoods that differ greatly in ethnic, social and economic makeup. And while many residents are fiercely proud of their community, some call it a "little Chicago" where crime, drug use and other problems often associated with urban poverty run rampant.
The challenge to school officials is to mirror the best of the city and keep conflicts off school grounds.
"I think that certain things have happened, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that have given us a reputation of not being a quality place to live and go to school," said school superintendent Steve Borgsmiller, formerly the city manager. "This is a nice place to live. I'm biased. There's no way around it, and I make no excuses for it."
School officials said acknowledging the district's diversity is critical in their efforts to create an educational environment that reflects the community.
But widespread diversity training for teachers to manage those issues has been lacking, even though some attend seminars here and there.
For many years, a complicated busing schedule has been adjusted annually to scatter children from the mostly black Southwest Elementary School neighborhood throughout the district's other four elementary schools.
Assistant superintendent Paul Kitchen said busing is necessary because the schools would otherwise reflect the predominant racial and economic character of the neighborhoods they serve.
For example, Southwest Elementary School is on Murray Lane near the Clayton Addition, an economically depressed neighborhood. Lee Hunter Elementary School on Baker Lane serves the community's wealthiest students.
"If Southwest was just left alone, it would be about 70 percent minority. We bused to keep that from happening," Kitchen said.
Students who are bused sometimes take two buses to achieve a 35 percent minority enrollment in each building. The percentage matches the overall minority enrollment of the district's 3,900 students.
Kitchen said a proposal to end busing and return Southwest to a "majority minority school" several years ago was rejected by black ministers and the active Daughters of Sunset group.
"I personally thought they would be interested, but it's an economically depressed area where not all kids get the parental supports they need," Kitchen said. "They felt it would be such a tough school to handle that the good students wouldn't get what they needed."
While busing has changed the racial mix in Sikeston schools, avoiding a negative image has been more difficult, thanks to a number of high-profile crimes -- including an August 2000 shooting death within view of Lee Hunter Elementary School.
The district established a hot line three years ago to allow students, parents or others to anonymously report potential problems. More than a dozen reports are received annually, and the open drug deals that formerly took place at schools have decreased, Kitchen said.
"Before, drug dealers felt able to work out in the open. Now they're deterred," he said. "I really think because we have such tough policies, the kids can't take the chance."
Kitchen said there are few violations of the district's dress code and rules against drugs, weapons and violence, largely because tough penalties are swiftly and firmly enforced. Most major offenses result in automatic suspensions of 10 to 45 days.
"In the last five years, we've found one pistol on a middle school student who brought an unloaded antique to school to sell," Kitchen said.
But the rules school leaders regard as tough but fair are considered overbearing by several students.
"We can't carry big purses, we can't carry jackets," said Latoya Jackson, 15. "It's just unreasonable."
Jackson and others said they feel like suspects if they choose to wear current fashion musts like a bandanna or a certain style of jeans, and "just about everything is considered gang-related."
Others, like Dameshia Johnson, 16, said they try to keep a low profile at school, avoiding both the wrong-doers and administrators. They said they just want to focus on their schoolwork.
"Some of them are good, some aren't," said Johnson of the school policies. "It's not all that bad."
Kitchen said limiting what students wear and carry helps to keep them focused in classrooms. And a variety of programs have been implemented in recent years to help struggling students and others perform academically.
Among the most successful activities is the Bailey Reading Program started two years ago when the district hired two teachers to work solely to increase reading skills in sixth- through eighth-grade students.
Students often work with the teachers daily for several hours, which interrupts learning in other subjects. But Kitchen said the interruption gives students skills critical for their success in high school.
"We aren't worried about social studies or history, because if they can't read that stuff it doesn't matter," he said. "They're so far behind they can't catch up. If you can teach a kid to read, they'll survive."
Kitchen said some students have gained as many as three reading levels in a single year, and most have shown some gains. The program recently was expanded to include fourth- and fifth-grade students.
School officials also have developed a short list of programs designed to prevent students from dropping out of school.
An alternative school created five years ago reduces the number of out-of-school suspensions and keeps students in an academic environment.
A flexible scheduling program and a preschool within the district also aim to keep students in school. Young mothers are allowed to create a class schedule that accommodates child care, work and other issues.
"If I get a female dropout, there usually will be a baby tied to it," Kitchen said. "Our attitude is we lose as a school when they drop out, because we can't count them and lose state aid, and they can't earn a diploma."
While their efforts have seen mixed success over the years, school officials said they must continue the trial-and-error process if they hope to improve educational opportunities for students.
"I think if we had that magic pill, we would have swallowed it a long time ago," said Borgsmiller. "We're getting more family support because people recognize the value of education. That's about all you can ask for."