Chris Kieffer

Chris Kieffer is the Education writer at The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal | | Education Matters

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news_toyota_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Students in Lee, Pontotoc and Union Counties will have a chance this fall to learn how to fly a plane, program industrial robots or dig into health care careers.

The Toyota Wellspring Education Fund will offer three new dual-enrollment courses next school year designed to prepare students for in-demand professions. They are open to juniors and seniors at the 14 public high schools in those three counties.

“It is a tremendous opportunity,” said Charles Garrett, a senior consultant with the CREATE Foundation, which oversees the fund. “It is more and more important that people get an education or training that will help them have a successful lifestyle.”

Courses include an introduction to aviation, a look at the fundamentals of robotics and a survey of health care careers. They will all be hybrids, with instruction offered both online and in person. Each will have space for about 15 to 20 pupils, who can sign up through their school counselors. Students who complete each course will earn three hours of college credit.

The fund was created by a $50 million endowment from Toyota to support education in the three counties that worked together to bring the auto maker to Blue Springs. It is administered by an advisory committee and designed to be an enhancement, providing opportunities to the group that individual schools would be unable to provide alone.

Twenty two students recently completed the first course funded by the endowment – a class on web app entrepreneurship taught by six faculty members from Mississippi State University. Students made their final presentations April 12 at the Toyota facility, where the class met on Saturdays throughout the semester.

“What we’ve seen is an example of what is possible to enhance educational experiences for our students and to provide tangible real-world experiences of what students might chose to do,” said CREATE President Mike Clayborne.

The aviation class will be taught by Hinds Community College’s Randy Pearcy. Students will receive five hours of actual flight instruction in a Cessna 172 aircraft – which they and an instructor will schedule at the Tupelo Airport. They also will learn about operating unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, a skill expected to be in high demand in the near future.

Itawamba Community College will offer the robotics class, where students will how to program industrial robots and use the tools of advanced manufacturing. ICC Dean of Career and Technical Instruction Tony Tice said the course could capture those who show an interest in high school robotics classes and competitions.

“Their high school instructors will teach the basics of elementary robotics, and when we get them, we want to show them what is out there in industry,” he said.

The health care course combines online classes through Northeast Community College and job shadowing days at North Mississippi Medical Center. It will cover different health care fields, the educational requirements, workplace demands and expected salaries, as well as the U.S. health care system and the forces that shape it.

Meanwhile, students who completed the web app class learned not only programming but also marketing and branding. They designed apps that helped solve school nurse shortages, supplemented school announcements, allowed teachers and students to connect, provided campus guides for freshmen and helped tally votes in student elections, among other functions.

“That was the tool we used to teach entrepreneurship,” said Rodney Pearson, professor of business information systems at MSU.

Before designing their programs, groups had to conduct market research with students and teachers at their schools, said Allison Pearson, Rodney’s wife and a professor of management at MSU.

“We really wanted to emphasize to the students whether what you produce is a web app or some physical product, it is integral you contact potential customers and get feedback,” she said.


By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

OXFORD – The national board of directors of Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity will close the chapter on the University of Mississippi campus, the university announced in a press release on Thursday afternoon.

The national organization suspended the chapter in February after three freshmen members were responsible for desecrating the James Meredith statue on the Ole Miss campus. Those members were subsequently voted out of the fraternity, and national staff said then it would investigate the incident.

That investigation cited a pattern of “bad behavior and serious, inexcusable hazing” within the chapter, UM Dean of Students Sparky Reardon said in the press release. The internal review, requested by the university, also found incidents of underage drinking.

“Periodic reports from and meetings with local alumni and national headquarters led us to believe that the chapter was improving,” Reardon said. “Based on regular visits by representatives from the University of Mississippi Office of Greek Life with current Sigma Phi Epsilon members, chapter officers, local and regional volunteers and national headquarters, the university had no reason to believe this type of behavior and conduct was happening.”

A rendering of what Tupelo High School's football field would look like with blue turf. (Courtesy)

A rendering of what Tupelo High School’s new turf and track will look like. (Tupelo School District)

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The blue turf is coming to Tupelo High School.

The district’s school board on Tuesday approved the $1.3-million project to install blue turf on its high school football field and to resurface its track.

Hellas Construction of Austin, Texas, won the bid for the project and will begin work shortly after THS hosts a regional track meet on April 26. The project is expected to be completed in late July or early August, before the school’s first home football game against Center Hill on Aug. 22.

Tupelo received permission from Boise State University to use the blue turf. BSU holds a patent on the unique playing surface. The track will be gold, matching Tupelo High’s colors.

Football coach Trent Hammond said his players have expressed excitement about the blue playing surface because it would stand out from other fields.

“A lot of people are excited about the turf,” Hammond said. “Our players are excited about the idea of blue and about being different. It is totally different and unique, and that has created a lot of buzz.”

The district has been working to find sponsors to cover much of the cost of the turf. It has currently raised about $705,000 in commitments, which would cover about 80 percent of the cost of the turf. That estimate does not include the cost of the track but officials said the district was going to have to resurface its track regardless of whether it added the turf.

THS athletic director Andy Schoggin said a few sponsors were drawn to the project by the color.

“It is a big accomplishment to be able to do this in a short timeline,” he said. “It shows the great community support we have. It will be exciting to see the work begin.”

Other uses

Hammond said having turf will help because more groups will be able to use it. For instance, they no longer will have to cancel a middle school or junior high football game because the field is wet and needs to be preserved for the Friday varsity game. It also will be used by soccer and track, and the marching band will be able to practice there instead of on a parking lot.

“The exciting thing to me is it will benefit multiple programs across fine arts and athletics at Tupelo High School,” said Tupelo assistant superintendent Matthew Dillon. “It it exciting to see the community partner with the school district on this project.”

Adam Robison | Buy at Meg McNeal, 10, a fifth-grader at Lawndale Elementary School, logs into her class assignment page during her language arts class on Tuesday morning.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Meg McNeal, 10, a fifth-grader at Lawndale Elementary School, logs into her class assignment page during her language arts class on Tuesday morning.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Tupelo Public School District will furnish laptops for all of its third- to fifth-grade students to use in the classroom next year.

It will purchase about 1,200 Chomebook computers so that each student will have access to one during the school day. The students will not take the devices home.

This will expand the district’s current computer initiative, which uses classroom sets of computers for sixth-graders and provides a MacBook for all seventh- to 12th-graders to use at school and home.

The use of the computers in the older grades will not change, Superintendent Gearl Loden said. The school district will, however, purchase a new MacBook Air computer for each of its teachers to use next year and will use the older teacher computers to supplement the student devices.

District officials announced the expansion to the younger grades during Tuesday’s School Board meeting. It will be important, they said, since students in grades three and above will be taking standardized tests on the Common Core State Standards using computers.

Adam Robison | Buy at The Tupelo School District is purchasing about 1,200 Chromebook laptops for students.

Adam Robison | Buy at
The Tupelo School District is purchasing about 1,200 Chromebook laptops for students.

“It is important for our students to understand the platform on which they are being assessed,” Assistant Superintendent Kim Britton said. “In addition to knowing the curriculum, they need to know the technology skills that will be required.”

Niki Peel, the district’s new instructional technology coordinator, will work to ensure the students learn digital citizenship skills, Superintendent Gearl Loden said.

She also will work with teachers to help them to integrate the technology into the classroom.

“Student learning will have to evolve around 21st-century skills,” Peel said, noting that will include more project-based learning. “We want to use technology as more than a resource but use it to its full potential to develop these skills.”

Each third- to fifth-grade school already has about 100 Chromebooks. Now they will each add about 300 more, which will be funded by the district’s general budget.

Those students now have access to the computers about once a week, or sometimes more when they work in groups. The new initiative will make sure they are able to use them every day, Britton said.

“Elementary school is going to change completely,” Britton said.

Thomas Wells | Buy at Ragan Milner, center, accepts her award for winning Parent of the Year for the Tupelo Public School District.

Thomas Wells | Buy at
Ragan Milner, center, accepts her award as Tupelo Public School District’s Parent of the Year. She was presented the award by School Board members Rob Hudson, from left, and Kenneth Wheeler and Superintendent Gearl Loden, as the Parents of the Year from the district’s individual schools applauded.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – As a former teacher, Ragan Milner saw the importance of parental involvement in schools.

So when she and her family moved to Tupelo from Montgomery, Ala., in 2007, it only seemed natural that she would be active in the district her two children attended.

She was recognized for her long list of volunteer activities on Tuesday when she was named the Tupelo Public School District’s Parent of the Year. Milner was honored at the district’s School Board meeting at Tupelo High School, along with the Parents of the Year for each of the district’s schools.

“Education is important to me, as a former teacher,” Milner said. “I want to do anything I can do to support the schools and make the job of teachers easier so they can focus on teaching my child and the other children.

“I know what it is like to be in a school district that doesn’t have a lot of parental involvement, and I want to be involved and encourage others to be involved.”

Milner was representing Milam Elementary, where her oldest son, Coltin, is a sixth-grader. She and her husband, Chuck, have another son, Chance, in fifth grade at Lawndale Elementary.

“She does it out of love,” Chuck Milner said. “She is a wonderful mom. I can’t tell you how impressed I am every day.”

Milner organized more than 60 volunteers, parents and high school students to support Milam’s Science Fun Day. She has arranged rewards for teachers and students and provided classroom supplies for teachers.

“She has helped out in every way,” Milam Principal Travis Beard said. “My word to describe her is ‘involved.’ She is involved in every area of our school.”

Milner also has been a teacher in Lawndale Elementary School’s science lab, and she helped create that school’s writing lab. She is on the PTO board at Milam, is vice president of the Lawndale PTO and is a homeroom chairperson. She serves as a PTO representative for a Mississippi Arts Commission grant and is on Milam’s Community Advisory Committee.

Milner was Thomas Street Elementary’s Parent of the Year in 2009 and Lawndale’s in 2012.

“She has been involved in all schools, and it is good for her to be recognized for exceptional work all the way up,” Beard said.

Milner said she has appreciated the school district’s support for parent engagement, calling it a big strength of the district.

“We chose Tupelo because of the reputation of its public schools,” she said.



The following Tupelo School District parents were honored on Tuesday for being the Parent of the Year at their individual schools: Holly McCoy (Carver Elementary), Tata Cayson (Early Childhood Education Center), Gwen Cordell (Joyner Elementary), Amy Giorgenti (Lawhon Elementary), Amy Littleton (Lawndale Elementary), Milner (Milam Elementary), Fidel Cubillo (Parkway Elementary), Angie Homan (Pierce Street Elementary), Lisa Campbell (Rankin Elementary), Paige Scruggs (Thomas Street Elementary), Julie Walsh Seiler (Tupelo Middle) and Renee Baldwin (Tupelo High).



By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Tupelo Public School District filled principal vacancies at two of its elementary schools and hired a pair of high school principals from neighboring school districts on Tuesday.

The district announced Amy Barnett will be the new principal at Rankin Elementary, and Art Dobbs will hold that position at Pierce Street Elementary. Each had been assistant principals in the district. Barnett was at Pierce Street, and Dobbs was at Tupelo High.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with phenomenal educators,” Barnett said. “I’ve worked with administrators who have pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to improve. I’m extremely happy to continue to work with the district in a new capacity.”



They will fill the district’s two principal vacancies created by the retirement of Milam Principal Travis Beard and the resignation of Pierce Street Principal Kenneth Goralczyk to take another job. Rankin Principal Paul Moton will move to Milam.

“This is one of the most exciting times I’ve had in my educational career,” Dobbs said. “That’s because of the anticipation of getting to work with a staff like they have at Pierce Street. They have the whole package, a wonderful faculty and wonderful students and parents.”

Meanwhile, the district also announced Baldwyn High School Principal Adam Lindsey and Nettleton High School Principal Melissa Thomas will be assistant principals at Tupelo High. That school had two assistant principal vacancies after moves by Dobbs and by Genevieve McAlpin – who will become the district’s new special education director.

In other moves announced on Tuesday, Milam Elementary Assistant Principal Niki Peel will be the district’s instructional technology coordinator. Pierce Street teacher L.V. McNeal will become assistant principal at Milam, and Tracey Taylor will become assistant principal at Pierce Street and will continue to serve as the district’s arts integration coordinator. Taylor had been both arts integration and grants coordinator.

Peel’s job is a revamped one that will focus on integrating technology in the classroom.

All of the moves were approved by the district’s school board on Tuesday. The district had 34 applicants for its principal positions and 65 for its assistant principal spots, Superintendent Gearl Loden said.

“We were very pleased with the applicant pool,” he said.

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By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

PONTOTOC – Shelby Smink competed in three events during Friday’s Area 11 Special Olympics.

The Saltillo High School junior tossed horseshoes, threw tennis balls and competed in a race. Asked which was her favorite, the 17-year-old broke out a large smile.

“My favorite is the run because I like to go fast,” Shelby said.

She was among about 500 athletes who took part in the annual event held at the Pontotoc City Track and Field. That marked its largest turnout, with a record 23 schools participating.

“The best part is seeing the smiles on the athletes’ faces,” said Patricia Holcomb, Area 11 Special Olympics Director.

Athletes ages 3-and-up competed in 18 events – from races to basketball to jumping events to throwing competitions to boccie and croquet.

“It is just fun,” said Shannon High School’s Kortnee Hooks, who practiced for her basketball event by shooting in the school’s gym every day.

Many competitors were trying to qualify for the state games to be held in May in Biloxi. About 100 athletes will go, with special consideration given to those who took first place in their events.

Area 11 includes Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tippah, Tishomingo and Union counties.

“It is a day where they can be the stars, where they are the center of everything,” said Saltillo Primary special education teacher Coleen Thornton, who has been involved with the Special Olympics for the past 10 years.

Tupelo High School’s Nicholas Gunter, 16, said his favorite part is the opportunity to compete. That was echoed by Amy Tutor, 27, who proudly wore a ribbon for her first-place finish in her category for boccie ball. Concentration, Tutor said, is the key.

Meanwhile, for Ripley Elementary’s Jaden Harrell and Alcorn Central Elementary’s Marshall Price, the best part was being outside on a crisp, spring day.

“This is one of my favorite times of the year,” said Ricky Gibens, who drove the bus for Alcorn Central. “It is heartwarming to see the kids enjoying themselves.”

He was among nearly 500 volunteers – including a large number of high school students – who helped with Friday’s events.

Shelby, the Saltillo student, practiced by throwing a softball and running nearly every afternoon since the beginning of the school year.

“I’m dedicated to it,” she said. “To know I can do this makes me feel good about myself.”

county_lee_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Students in the Lee County School District will begin next school year on Thursday, Aug. 7.

The district’s school board on Tuesday approved its calendar for the 2014-15 school year. The final day for staff and students will be Friday, May 22, 2015, and graduation will be May 23.

The calendar reflects the early start flexibility given back to districts by state lawmakers. The Legislature recently repealed a 2012 law that would have prevented districts from starting before the third Monday in August, beginning this year.

Traditionally, Northeast Mississippi schools have begun during the first or second week of August, and superintendents said that doing so allows them to complete the first semester before Christmas.

Lee County teachers will have a week of training from Thursday, July 31 to Wednesday, Aug. 6.

Holidays include Labor Day (Sept. 1), Columbus Day (Oct. 13), Thanksgiving (Nov. 24 to 28), Christmas (Dec. 22 to Jan. 2), Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 19), spring break (March 9-13) and Easter (April 3-6).

Students will be off on Presidents Day (Feb. 16), which will be a training day for teachers. Teachers also will have training on Jan. 5, while students will return from Christmas break on Jan. 6.

The district will have 60 percent days on Dec. 19 and May 22.

Easter Monday will be reserved as a weather make-up day.

Lauren Wood | Buy at Students eat lunch in the Saltillo High School cafeteria on Wednesday. The school's commons area soon will be expanded as part of a nearly $3 million project approved by the School Board on Tuesday. The work is funded by July's $13.5 million bond approval.

Lauren Wood | Buy at
Students eat lunch in the Saltillo High School cafeteria on Wednesday. The school’s commons area soon will be expanded as part of a nearly $3 million project approved by the School Board on Tuesday. The work is funded by July’s $13.5 million bond approval.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

SALTILLO – Saltillo High students eventually will have more classrooms and a larger dining area.

The Lee County School Board approved on Tuesday a nearly $3 million expansion at the 950-student school. It includes 12 new classrooms, an extra dining hall and a more secure entrance.

Also approved during Tuesday’s meeting was the renovation of hallways and restrooms at Saltillo Elementary, Shannon Elementary and Verona Elementary. Those projects all are funded by July’s $13.5 million bond approval.

All the work will begin at the end of the current school year. The renovation projects are expected to be completed before students return in August, while the Saltillo High project should be done in December 2015.

“With the bond issue, we are trying to meet as much of the need as we can on the campuses,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks. “We are pleased with the bids and the way the process has gone so far. Although we are not addressing all of the needs on every campus, we are addressing the majority of the needs on the campuses.”

New classrooms at Saltillo High will be added to the left side of the school, in front of the football field. It will be a two-story addition with six classrooms on each floor.

The dining hall will be built next to the existing commons area with a short hallway connecting the two. It will be able to seat about 280 students, nearly doubling the current capacity of about 340 pupils. New serving lines also will be added.

When visitors enter the school, they no longer will walk directly into the commons area. Instead, they will be greeted by a school employee inside a small entryway. There they will sign in before being buzzed into the school.

Burton Builders will do the work at a cost of $2,987,000.

Meanwhile, Century Construction won the bid to renovate the restrooms and hallways at the three elementary schools. It will cost $1,439,600.

The school board has now approved six of the nine projects to be funded by bond money, totaling $7,025,600. Weeks said they remain close to budget.

“We are running right at where we need to be,” Weeks said. “Some projects have come in a little under and some a hair over, so it has evened out, but there is not a whole lot of wiggle room on the budget.”

Lauren Wood | Buy at Shannon High School Parent of the Year Antoinette Freeman is named Lee County School District Parent of the Year on Tuesday night during the School Board meeting at the district's Central Office.

Lauren Wood | Buy at
Shannon High School Parent of the Year Antoinette Freeman is named Lee County School District Parent of the Year on Tuesday night during the School Board meeting at the district’s Central Office.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Last month, Shannon High School needed to prepare a large amount of food for a special recognition program for its students.

So Antoinette Freeman, the mother of a freshman at the school, volunteered to cook 400 hot dogs and 200 hamburgers, with the help of her two parents.

Freeman travels to all of the school’s marching band trips. She serves on its Title 1 Advisory Committee and regularly donates school supplies for teachers and needy students.

“There is not anything we ask for, that she hasn’t been right there to do,” said Shannon High School Principal Bill Rosenthal. “If we have students in need, and we let her know, she makes sure those kids get what they need.”

Freeman was named the Lee County School District’s Parent of the Year on Tuesday night during a School Board meeting at its Central Office. The district also recognized the Parents of the Year from each of its individual schools.

“It means a lot,” Freeman said of the honor. “I enjoy helping others. It is motivating to help others and help these students. Some of them don’t have it and need it.”

Freeman’s daughter, Shannon freshman Madalyn Bails, said her mother’s involvement “keeps her focused.”

“It feels good because a lot of parents aren’t there for their kids,” she said. “It keeps me on task. I know I can’t get bad grades or get in trouble.”

Verona Elementary Principal Temeka Shannon said Freeman has been active in the district’s schools since Madalyn was in kindergarten.

“She deserves this,” Shannon said.

Freeman has coordinated with her church to donate supplies to students and helped arrange activities to reward students for good behavior.

She has been a parent sponsor for the student council, the coordinator of the Plantersville Middle School prom committee and a chaperone on numerous school trips. She has helped with the school’s parent workshops and won a $1,000 Walmart grant to assist with school activities.

Even though Madalyn is now at the high school, she donated school supplies to Plantersville Middle this week.

“I helped where I was needed,” she said. “I like to be involved in my daughter’s education and be an encouragement to her.”


The Lee County School District recognized the Parents of the Year for each of its individual schools on Tuesday night. Those include Libba Priest (Guntown Middle), Stephanie Baldwyn (Mooreville Elementary), Tammy Stuper (Mooreville Middle), Anita Pate (Mooreville High), Brandi Traylor (Plantersville Middle), Amber McHenry (Saltillo Elementary), Sharon Rye (Saltillo High), Julie Arriola (Saltillo Primary), Rachel Sisk (Shannon Elementary), Suzanne Lindsey (Shannon Middle), Freeman (Shannon High), Katrinka Trice (Shannon Primary) and Lavonda Witherspoon (Verona Elementary).