Chris Kieffer

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

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By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove made his pitch to the Lee County School Board on Tuesday, asking them to join a proposed lawsuit against the state.

The Board did not take action on Tuesday, saying it needs more time to research the proposal. The suit would seek payment of the $1.5 billion that the state has underfunded kindergarten to 12th-grade education since 2010.

Musgrove’s presentation was made in closed session because it involved prospective litigation.

“We told him we would look into it,” Board President Sherry Mask said. “We are not far enough into it to have an opinion.”

The lawsuit emerges from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a state law passed in 1997 that determines how much funding each school district should receive. It has been traditionally underfunded, however, including each of the past six years. This year’s appropriation is $257 million below what the formula requires.

The MAEP Legal Group, which includes Musgrove and other lawyers, nearly filed the suit last December but decided not to do so because several districts believed a budget surplus would exist, and MAEP would be fully funded this year. When that did not happen, but the Legislature instead opted to send $400 million to the state rainy day fund, the group decided to take action.

“The failure to fund MAEP is crippling districts across Mississippi,” said Musgrove, who authored MAEP as a state senator. “Education is the most important thing we can do across the state to create jobs. We are hurting our number one job creator.”

Only districts who sign onto the lawsuit would receive payment if it is successful. The attorneys will receive a percentage of that payment, according to a sliding-scale cap for contingency fees that is set in state law. Some school board attorneys also have been offered as much of 10 percent of any award their district receives.

“Our fee schedule is one that has been approved by the Legislature,” Musgrove said. “…When a school district joins in, their lawyer has work to do to help us in the local matter.”

Musgrove said on Tuesday that 15 districts had signed onto the lawsuit and that his group had made presentations to about 50 districts across the state. He declined to name which ones were on board.

The effort is separate from another issue to ensure funding, an attempt to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2015 ballot that would require Mississippi to “support an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”

Better Schools, Better Jobs, the group behind that effort, says it would ensure full funding in the future. They oppose the lawsuit, saying it could negatively impact their effort. They also say the state would not have the money to immediately repay past underfunding. Instead, they propose for future funding to be phased in, with 25 percent of new revenue going to K-12 education until the goal is met.

“Their issue is the past, and our issue is the future,” said Patsy Brumfield, communication director for Better Schools, Better Jobs.

Musgrove said the state could repay the money from its reserves or by issuing bonds or it could spread payments over several years. He said he’s concerned the Better Schools, Better Jobs initiative will not guarantee full funding.

“I’m open to any action that increases funding for education in Mississippi,” he said. “The proposed lawsuit is the only effort to try to recover funds that the school districts are owed and need to pay expenses.”

The Lee County School District would be eligible to receive $22.3 million under the lawsuit, representing the amount of money it had been underfunded since 2010.

Adam Robison | Buy at Marilyn Morrison, school counselor at Joyner Elementary, helps Tylen Doss, 8, a second-grade student, read a thank-you letter to those in attendance for their role in helping Joyner School during the time of the tornado at the Tupelo Public School District's teachers convocation Monday morning.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Marilyn Morrison, school counselor at Joyner Elementary, helps Tylen Doss, 8, a second-grade student, read a thank-you letter to those in attendance for their role in helping Joyner School during the time of the tornado at the Tupelo Public School District’s teachers convocation Monday morning.

Adam Robison | Buy at Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden told teachers to focus on relationships, communicating with students and good instructional practices.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden told teachers to focus on relationships, communicating with students and good instructional practices.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – A classroom’s climate makes a big difference to a student’s achievement.

That was the message of the keynote speaker as Tupelo teachers returned to work on Monday. More than 1,100 school district employees ended their summer break by attending the district’s back-to-school meeting at Tupelo High School’s Performing Arts Center.

Crystal Kuykendall spoke of ways educators can better reach their students, especially vulnerable pupils who come from high-poverty backgrounds. The president and general counsel of Kreative and Innovative Resources for Kids said too many children get to a point in their lives where they do not believe they are expected to make it.

“When they don’t believe they can make it down life’s high road, they start down the low road,” she said. “When they start down life’s low road, we all pay a price.”

Kuykendall spoke of the importance of physical proximity, courtesy, praise and affirmation, acceptance of feelings and appreciation of differences. She noted the value of tone and of relationships.

“What I hope they take is renewed determination to change the practices we know don’t bring out the best in children,” she said.

Kuykendall also will visit individual schools and discuss strategies for discipline and classroom management.

“She is talking about building relationships and the need for interaction between students,” said Tupelo High science teacher Teresa Ware.

Adam Robison | Buy at Crystal Kuykendall spoke to Tupelo teachers about the importance of building a strong classroom climate.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Crystal Kuykendall spoke to Tupelo teachers about the importance of building a strong classroom climate.

Monday’s meeting began a week of preparation for the new school year, which begins Monday when students report for classes.

Superintendent Gearl Loden spoke to the staff about the changes coming to education. Teachers are used to changes, he said, but he has never seen a year where the evaluations, tests and accountability models are all changing at one time.

“A lot of districts will get overwhelmed, and we need to focus on relationships, how to communicate with children and good instructional practices,” Loden said.

The ceremony began with four Joyner Elementary students reading notes the school received following last April’s tornado.

Those students also recited the Pledge of Allegiance, while Tupelo High students sang the National Anthem.



By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo High School seniors can earn a new distinction when they graduate next May.

Hoping to increase the number of students who take Advanced Placement courses, the school has created an advanced studies diploma. To qualify, students must have 28 credits – two more than are required for a standard diploma – and a 3.5 quality-point-average and must have taken at least four AP classes.

Although it will carry the same weight as a traditional diploma, the certificate will denote the recognition.

“It adds a little more prestige to your diploma,” said Tupelo High Principal Jason Harris. “It shows you have gone above and beyond and taken more rigorous courses.”

Advanced Placement classes are designed to more closely resemble college ones. At the end of the course, students can take an exam on which they can earn college credit. Exams are scored from 1 to 5, and typically a 3 or higher is needed for college credit, although individual schools have different rules.

Last year, 72 Tupelo High students took a total of 99 AP exams, according to a report Harris made on Tuesday to the district’s School Board. Of those, 53 test scores were eligible for college credit, with 36 3s, 14 4s and three 5s. Meanwhile, the school had 35 2s and 11 1s.

The high school’s mean score for 2014 was a 2.63, Harris said. That is higher than the state average of 2.25 and lower than the national and global averages of 2.87 and 2.89 respectively.

The highest number of exams was for English Language, with 31 students taking that test. Twelve of them earned a 3 or greater.

Harris said his goal is not only to increase scores, but also grow the number of students who take the test. Last year, the school had 700 seats occupied in AP courses, despite taking only 99 exams. The biggest hindrance, Harris said, is students not understanding the value of the exam and the opportunity to earn college credit.

“For one, you can see how you score, and it is a great indicator of college success,” Harris said. “Also, you are able to receive a college credit, and everyone knows the cost of college classes. It makes it more feasible for parents.”

As a new incentive, AP students who take the exam this year will have two points added to their final average for the class. Also, Harris said, the school has received a grant from Toyota that will help cover part of the $91 exam fee.

“It is a culture shift,” Harris said. “We need to change the culture that when you enroll in the course, it is expected and understood you will take the exam.”

Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, changes in the state accountability formula will use both AP class enrollment and the performance on AP tests as a factor in how high schools are ranked.

For the upcoming school year, THS will offer 35 sections of AP courses, with about 650 seats currently filled.



Summer vacation is winding down and school will resume in Northeast Mississippi communities next week. Tupelo’s first classes are Aug. 4 while Lee County students go back to school on Aug. 7. Raleigh Bass, language arts academic coach at Shannon Elementary School (grades 3-5), answered questions from Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer about the start of another school year.

Q. What can students do during the next week to get ready for returning to school?

A. As students prepare to start school, they should have their school supplies ready, so they will be prepared for the first day. Over the next week, students can review basic math facts using flashcards, read a high-interest book, magazine or newspaper article, and summarize what they have read. Students should write about what they learned from the text, explain what it means, or tell the most important details. Parents can check their child’s comprehension by reading their written summary and by asking questions about the text. Parents also can make sure their child can recall math facts quickly and accurately.

Q. What type of skills do teachers typically spend the most time re-teaching at the beginning of the year?

A. In my opinion, teachers typically spend the most time re-teaching the basic skills such as basic math facts, writing correct and complete sentences, and answering simple questions about a specific text.

Q. What do you enjoy most about the beginning of a new school year?

A. I love everything about the students’ first days of school. Students are excited about starting a new school year, meeting their teacher, seeing their classmates and learning new information. Teachers begin each new year building community within their classrooms by planning interactive activities to learn about their students’ interests, determine their learning styles, and for students to get to know their peers. Teachers also will use this information to plan engaging lessons that will increase their students’ academic and social growth throughout the school year.

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo Middle School will hold final examinations over fewer days this year.

It also will host field days or other activities on those days as an incentive for students who are exempt from those exams to still come to school.

Both efforts are attempts to increase enrollment during exam week. The district’s attendance was roughly cut in half during final exams this year, TMS Principal Kristy Luse said. That is significant since average daily attendance is used by the state to determine how much funding every school district receives.

Primarily, the state uses the average attendance for October and November to determine funding figures. However, if the average for the entire year is higher, it will use that number instead. Superintendent Gearl Loden has said it is important for the district to ensure the yearly average is high, in case a special circumstance – such as a flu outbreak – lowers the October and November total. Thus the district has looked at ways to still attract students to school during a time when exemptions typically keep them away from it.

Under a new rule, students must be present for 63 percent of the school day to be counted as present. In the past, they were counted if there were there for any of the day. Other factors probably contributed to the lower exam week attendance this year, Luse said. It occurred shortly after the April 28 tornado, and snow makeup days added to the end of the year came during a time when some students had already scheduled vacations.

Still, Luse said, it was important to look at the impact of exemptions, which students earn for good grades throughout the year. At the middle school, students only can be exempt from final exams.

In the past, those tests were held over 41⁄2 days, with each day dedicated to a different subject, such as English or math. Those who were exempt had no reason to attend.

Now, the school day will be divided into three two-hour blocks during the two days of exam week.

One day will be for first-, second- and third-period classes and the other for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-periods. Seventh-period and exam makeups will be on the final day of the year, which is an early-dismissal day. That way, students exempt from first-period would still attend second- and third-period, and so forth. Also, the school will hold activities, such as a field day or popcorn party, for those who are exempt.

“We want to increase attendance and will teach as close up to the end of school as possible,” Luse said.

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – For the past three weeks, William Johnson and 55 other students have written, produced and staged a musical.

The high school students and recent graduates are participating in the annual Summer Scholars Onstage camp held at Mississippi State University. Their original play, “Partlynormal Activity,” will be staged this weekend.

“I’ve learned a bunch,” said Johnson, 18, who graduated from Tupelo High School in May. “…I’ve learned a lot about acting, how to be out on stage, how to deal with nerves and how to fix problems that show up so the audience doesn’t know there are any problems.”

Johnson is among 10 campers from Lee, Union and Pontotoc counties whose camp experience is funded by the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund. Created by a Toyota endowment to boost education in those three counties, the fund covered tuition for public school students to attend several summer camps at the state’s community colleges and universities this summer.

“I’ve made some really amazing friends,” said Mary Clair Kelly, 17, a rising senior at THS. “I’ve loved learning new things from experienced people, like the director, being with everyone and having a great time to put on a show. We work together toward one goal, to have the show.”

This year’s show is about a haunted hotel in three acts, set in the 1920s, 1970s and present day. It will be shown on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. in McComas Hall on the MSU campus. Performances are free and open to the public.

A group of 22 campers began the week of July 6 to come up with an idea for the play and to write the script. They were joined by 34 others the following week, and they began to put the production together.

“Our camp is a complete experience,” said camp director Joe Ray Underwood. “We encourage our students to learn who they are and value their potential as young scholars.”

Johnson did not previously have an interest in theater, but was convinced to attend by his mother, uncle and brother, who had all attended previously. Now, he will look for opportunities to participate in future theatrical productions. Plus, he said, his lessons go beyond the stage.

“A lot of the stuff I’ve learned here, like dealing with nerves or just making friends, can carry over,” he said.

Tupelo School District LogoBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Sixth– to 12th-grade students in Tupelo will again be able to use district-provided computers during the upcoming school year.

Or they can use one of their own.

The district will expand its optional Bring Your Own Device program, Assistant Superintendent Kim Britton said during Tuesday’s School Board meeting. It piloted the program in sixth grade last year.

The program allows students to use their personal devices at school during times when classmates are using computers for instruction. The personal devices will be able to connect to the district network. They would be used instead of district-provided computers.

“It is just another option,” Britton said. “If they have a device of their own they are comfortable with and if their parent trusts them with it, they can use that.”

Personal smartphones will not be allowed to connect to the district network, however, because they use up too much bandwidth.

Personal devices used by students should have keyboards, be Flash compatible and be able to open multiple windows at once, Britton said. The district does not recommend students use tablets as part of the Bring Your Own Device program because they will not be able to meet many of the classroom needs.

The district will send parents a list with specifications. One device it recommends is a Chromebook computer.

Those who bring their own devices will be responsible for them and for keeping them fully charged and maintained.

Tupelo seventh- to 12th-graders still will be able to use a district-provided laptop, although many of those computers will now be four or five years old. Third- to sixth-graders will have carts of laptops available to use in their classrooms.

Tupelo principals will work with teachers to help with implementation of the Bring Your Own device program and to answer questions once teachers return to work next week.

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Tupelo Public School District is proposing a $97.8 million budget that will not require a tax increase.

District leaders presented their budget for the upcoming school year during a public hearing Tuesday at Hancock Leadership Center. The district’s school board is expected to vote upon it during its next meeting on Aug. 12.

The budget anticipates $85.4 million in revenue. The reason expenditures are greater than revenue is that the district has an $8.04 million savings fund set aside for emergency construction projects. Although it does not anticipate spending that money, it is included as an expenditure in the budget in case it is needed.

Also, finance director Linda Pannell said, state cuts may cause the district to have to spend some of its fund balance. The district has been cut by about $20 million in state funding over the last several years, she said.

It also did not receive enough money from the state to cover the cost of the teacher pay raise approved by the Legislature last year. That means it must use other funds to pay for part of it.

However, Pannell said, the budget allows room for spending that likely will not be needed. She does not expect the fund balance will fall much below its current level, which is about $27 million. Typically the district spends less than it budgets, she said.

Funding includes $33.3 million from local sources, $32.9 million from the state, $8.97 million from federal sources and $10.1 million from other sources, including inter-fund transfers. Superintendent Gearl Loden said the district is thankful to receive more funding from local taxes than it does in the state, a privilege he said many districts do not have.

Major budget initiatives include $1.4 million for the one-to-one computer initiative, $486,000 for testing, $585,000 for the department of curriculum and instruction, $500,000 for training, $560,000 for the structured day program, $250,000 for teacher technology tools and $500,000 for textbooks.

Broken down by source, the district will spend $49.6 million, or 50 percent, on instruction. It includes $10.4 million on facilities and construction services, $8.6 million for operational services and $6 million on debt services, among others.

Loden said the district also will consider a 2-3 percent pay raise to all non-teaching staff, if funds allow. Teachers already received a raise from the Legislature.

Adam Robison | Buy at Parkway Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jennifer Mathis works with incoming kindergartners during a summer program designed to introduce them to the school. More Mississippi kindergartners are entering school with the experience of having attended pre-K, according to a new report.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Parkway Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jennifer Mathis works with incoming kindergartners during a summer program designed to introduce them to the school. More Mississippi kindergartners are entering school with the experience of having attended pre-K, according to a new report.

By Chris Kieffer and Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Despite making gains in health and education, Mississippi fell back into the bottom spot in the annual Kids Count Report.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation today released this year’s ranking of overall child well-being. It measures data related to economic well-being, education, health and family and community.

Ranked 49th last year, Mississippi showed improvement in each of the four data points related to education and to health. New Mexico made greater gains, however, to drop the Magnolia State to 50th.

Mississippi was particularly hurt by its child poverty numbers. About 35 percent of the state’s children live in poverty, compared to a national average of 23 percent.

Daily Journal | File Between 2005 and 2011, Mississippi saw a small improvement in the number of low birthweight babies born in the state.

Daily Journal | File
Between 2005 and 2011, Mississippi saw a small improvement in the number of low birthweight babies born in the state.

“It is really a matter of where Mississippi is starting from,” said Linda Southward, Mississippi Kids Count director. “For Mississippi to improve, the gains need to be made at a faster rate.”

Improvements in education included more kids attending pre-K and graduating from high school. Students also scored better on a national test in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.

Health gains were reductions in low-birthweight babies, children without health insurance, child and teen deaths and teens who abuse alcohol or drugs.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve improved a tiny bit,” said Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier. “It gives us hope to know change is possible.”

Currier is especially encouraged by the downward trend in the teen birth rate, which has continued despite the economic downturn.

“To be healthy as a child, adolescent and adult, you need a healthy start,” Currier said.

The percentage of the state’s students not attending pre-K dropped from 54 percent between 2005-2007 to 50 percent in 2010-2012, the most recent data used by Kids Count. That is meaningful because pre-K helps children enter kindergarten ready to succeed, said longtime education advocate Claiborne Barksdale. Without pre-K, he said, many low-income students are already behind their peers when they enter school because they have often heard fewer words and had less access to educational resources.

“If we really expect to have children in poverty succeed in school, then we understand we need to begin working with them in their earliest years to try to get them off to a good start and get them where they need to be,” he said.

Southward said she is particularly excited that the state has begun to spend public money on pre-K for the first time. In 2013, it became the last Southern state to do so, awarding $3 million each to two programs – the Early Learning collaborative grant program and Mississippi Building Blocks.

The collaborative is a competitive grant program that has funded 11 groups that will serve about 2,000 children. This year, the state re-appropriated $3 million, which will continue the program but not grow it.

The biggest concern for Mississippi was worsening childhood poverty data. The percentage of children who live in poverty rose from 31 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2012. The state also had more children whose parents lack secure employment (40 percent) and who live in households with a high housing cost burden (35 percent) and more teens not in school and not working (12 percent).

“We have to acknowledge these issues around families and children are very complex issues,” said Corey Wiggins, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. “There is not a one-shot approach.”

Addressing them includes supporting and investing in public education and increasing access to health care, health insurance and financial institutions, he said.

With education numbers improving and poverty numbers growing, a question may be which impacts the other in future reports. Will the rising education level reduce poverty or will growing poverty create challenges that make education gains more difficult?

“One of the things we want to be clear about and to make sure of is when students graduate, they have opportunities for employment,” Wiggins said. “We want to make sure we are investing into these new graduates so they have the necessary skills and education they need to be successful in higher education and/ or the job market.”

The annual Kids Count report is extremely valuable for those working to aid children and families.

“Knowing where we are and where we’ve been allows us to change to improve the future,” Currier said.,

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

news_fire_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Two people died in a house fire near West Point on Thursday night.

The fire at 2090 Dr. Sears Road killed Alvin Tallie Sr., 54, and his wife, Fatenia Tallie, 54, said Clay County Coroner Alvin Carter Jr. Another adult and a child also were in the house and escaped, Carter said.

The child was unharmed, and the adult was taken to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo for treatment of smoke inhalation and cuts.

The fire began about 11:10 p.m. Thursday at the location three miles north of West Point. Volunteer fire units spent about an hour to get the fire under control, and it completely destroyed the house.

Its cause is still being investigated, and a representative from the state fire marshal’s office was there Friday morning.

It appeared the Tallies were trapped in the back of the home, and that they “succumbed to smoke inhalation” as they tried to exit through the back bathroom window, Carter said.

Their bodies are being sent to Jackson for an autopsy, but foul play is not suspected.