Chris Kieffer

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

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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.

Adam Robison | Buy at Middle-school students from Tupelo and surrounding areas participate in the District 6 Leadership Camp on Wednesday.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Middle-school students from Tupelo and surrounding areas participate in the District 6 Leadership Camp on Wednesday.

Adam Robison | Buy at Integrity Time's Sara Berry uses charts held by Mantachie's Emory Reinhard, 11, and Baldwyn's Luke Horner, 12, as she speaks about good character during the camp held at HealthWorks! in Tupelo. State Sen. Nancy Collins, who organized the camp, watches in the background.

Adam Robison | Buy at
Integrity Time’s Sara Berry uses charts held by Mantachie’s Emory Reinhard, 11, and Baldwyn’s Luke Horner, 12, as she speaks about good character during the camp held at HealthWorks! in Tupelo. State Sen. Nancy Collins, who organized the camp, watches in the background.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Rising middle-school students discussed values, teamwork and service on Wednesday afternoon.

Fifty-three sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are attending the third annual District 6 Leadership Camp, which began Wednesday and concludes today at HealthWorks!

“This camp is fun, and we get to learn about being a leader and that you can change the world by a simple action,” said camper Ben Ueltschey, 11, a rising sixth-grader at Tupelo Christian Preparatory School.

The camp was created by state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo. More than 10 speakers addressed the campers around five themes: look up, stand up, lift up, pick up and get back up.

The participants also heard from representatives of five different charities: the CREATE Tornado Relief Fund, Sanctuary Hospice House, Veteran’s Memorial Park, Salvation Army and Eight Days of Hope. Today they will vote on which one will receive a donation from contributions they made.

“We have a great opportunity to raise up new leaders,” Collins said.

Among Wednesday’s presentations was a message about bullying by Sara Berry of Integrity Time and Raigan Miskelly of First United Methodist Church in Columbus.

“Bullying exists, and as leaders, we have a responsibility to realize every person is of sacred worth,” said Miskelly, the church’s pastor. “The way to do that is we stand up, speak up and lift others up.”

Campers also toured Itawamba Community College’s Workforce Mobile Unit and heard from Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson, among others. State Auditor Stacey Pickering will address them today.

Josh Berry, 12, said he attended the camp to learn to be more of a leader.

“I like it because it teaches you a lesson,” said the rising sixth-grader at TCPS. “It teaches you bullying is wrong and don’t do it.”

Paris O’Neal, 12, a rising seventh-grader at Tupelo Middle School, learned about the importance of being a leader, not bullying and helping people up when they are down.

“I think it is inspirational, and it is a great gift to kids,” she said of the camp.

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Nearly a third of female community college students in Mississippi also are raising a child, according to a recently released survey.

The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi commissioned the online survey of the state’s female community college students in order to better understand their needs and circumstances. It was conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which received 544 responses from 13 of the state’s 15 community colleges.

Read full survey

“We recognized that Mississippi has one of the lowest post-secondary completion rates in the country,” said Jamie Bardwell, deputy director of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi. “We also realize that women in community colleges in particular are often student parents, and we know women with kids in school have unique challenges and unique situations.

“…We have been using this report as a jumping-off point to talk to community colleges and policymakers about different decisions they can make that would increase the completion rate of women with kids in particular.”

The number of students raising children is significant because it presents another challenge to them finishing their education. About half of respondents with children also reported they had taken time off of school.

When those participants were asked the reason for their time off, 43 percent listed “financial considerations” and 38 percent said “became pregnant and/or had a baby.” About a quarter cited “insufficient child care.”

“This is directly connected to the quality of life we have,” Bardwell said, noting that the more residents Mississippi has with post-secondary degrees, the more employers it will attract.

“The more jobs in Mississippi that are higher wage, the better revenue the state will get and the better Mississippi will be for everyone.”

The report calls for expanded student support services – such as help for students in locating affordable, high-quality child care or making any on-campus care more affordable for low-income students. It recommends that community colleges establish connections with community health centers and that existing campus health care centers receive adequate funding.

“We want to make sure students on community college campuses have access to health care and access to child care, particularly in areas outside of the large cities, where there is a transportation challenge,” Bardwell said.

It encourages enhanced career counseling that encourages women to pursue education for higher-paying jobs where they typically are underrepresented, such as those in science, technology, engineering and math.

The report highlights the need for more state financial aid for low-income students. Only 10 percent of female students surveyed reported receiving a state grant for higher education. This is a problem, the report said, because state grants are not awarded based on financial need and often have requirements that make it difficult for low-income and/or nontraditional students to apply.

About 15 percent of state grants awarded in Mississippi consider financial need, it said, compared with 71 percent nationally.

“If you don’t have enough financial aid, you are far less likely to stay in school,” Bardwell said.

Forty-three percent of survey participants either did not have health insurance or did not know whether they had it.

Nearly 90 percent of surveyed students said they are satisfied or very satisfied with their community college experience, and two-thirds said their college education has increased their self-confidence.

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Lee County School Board approved on Tuesday a $78.8 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The proposal passed during a specially called meeting matched the one presented during last week’s budget hearing. It is not expected to require a tax increase.

About $13 million of the budget’s expenses will be various construction projects using funds the district already has received from last summer’s bond approval. That leaves about $65.8 million in other expenses.

It will be funded with $64.26 million in revenue, requiring the district to spend about $1.5 million from its reserves. Business manager Michael Martin said the district will be able to absorb that and still keep its fund balance above the required 7 percent of the district’s maintenance budget.

However, Martin said, if state funding does not increase next year, the district may then need to either raise local taxes or make cuts.

Lee County Schools will receive $35.25 million from the state, which is about $3.8 million below what is required by the formula Mississippi uses to determine how much funding each of its districts should receive. Although that is about $625,000 more than the district received last year, the new teacher pay raise will cost the district about $981,000.

Other sources of revenue include $15.4 million from local taxes (24 percent), $7.1 million from federal sources (11 percent), $4.5 million from transfers between funds (7 percent) and $1.95 million from other local sources. The state funding represents 55 percent.

The largest expenditure is $47.2 million, or 60 percent, for salaries and benefits.

Also included in the expenditures is about $400,000 for technology needs, including networking upgrades, wireless access and computers. The district also spent an additional $235,000 to give all non-certified personnel a 2 percent pay raise. That is for all positions except teachers – including custodians, teacher assistants, bus drivers, administrators and central office personnel, among others.

Teachers will receive a $1,500 pay raise from a new state law.

To cut costs, the district will not fill five positions throughout the district that were vacated after the past school year. That includes four classroom teachers and one academic coach.

The budget was approved by a 3-0 vote. Board members Sherry Mask and Mike Mitchell, as well as Superintendent Jimmy Weeks, left the room during the vote. Mask and Mitchell each have children employed by the district. Weeks’ wife works for the district.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Lee County School district will redraw the map it uses for its School Board member districts.

Population growth in Saltillo and Guntown has tilted the current format such that districts one and two in the northern part of the county are much larger than the other three districts. The one-man, one-vote principle requires the districts to be balanced with roughly the same population in each.

“It is all about equal representation across the district,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks.

Kurt Brummett, research and analysis director at Three Rivers Planning and Development District, has worked on a proposed new map that he presented at Tuesday’s School Board meeting. Essentially, it would change the boundaries for each district to spread around the population.

“It is seeking to move more than 5,000 people in the northern two districts and move them into districts 3, 4 and 5, which need a larger population to be closer to that ideal number,” he said.

The district will hold a public hearing to allow residents to ask questions and make comments about the new map on July 10 at 4:30 p.m. in the Central Office. The Board can then vote on whether to approve it.

If approved, the new lines would immediately go into effect and would be used in this November’s election. The district 5 seat, held by Board President Sherry Mask, is up for election this year. The qualifying window is Aug. 6 to Sept. 5, and the seat will be listed on the Nov. 4 ballot.

A copy of the proposed new map will be available in the district office for review.

Given the school district’s population of 38,015, each of the five districts should have a population near 7,603.

However, under the current plan, they range from 11,625 to 4,727. In the new proposal, they would range from 7,676 to 7,547.

Brummett said when he helps government entities redraw election maps, he aims to keep districts within 5 percent of the ideal.

In this instance, they all are within 2 percent.

That should help the current proposal last longer, if adopted.

“The goal of this is to get the population close enough to where when the county looks at it again following the 2020 Census, they would not have to go through this process again and move voters from one district to another,” he said.

Although the current map has instances where school board members represent more than one attendance zone (such as parts of both Mooreville and Satillo), the new plan will create more of that.

Three Rivers produced the map free of charge for the district, a service it offers to local governments and school districts.

Lee County’s current five members are Mask (district 5), Vice President Mike Mitchell (district 3), Secretary Mary Edwards (district 4), Hal Swann (district 1) and Ronnie Bell (district 2).

Mask, a sales representative, has been on the board for 17.5 years. Mitchell, who works for the United Way of Northeast Mississippi has served for 14 years, and Edwards, who is retired, has been on it for 19.5 years.

Swann, a farmer, has served for 3.5 years, and Bell, division director at Three Rivers, for two years and four months.