By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Some of Mississippi’s brightest young students have been in Tupelo this week, and they have brought an assortment of talents.
The 22nd annual Mississippi Junior Beta Convention was held Sunday through Tuesday at the BancorpSouth Arena and Convention Center.
Some 3,800 elementary and middle school students have competed in about 25 different competitions: art, math, science, social studies, spelling, English, poetry, speech, banners and scrapbook, among others.
The event includes a talent contest for groups of five or more, one for those of four or fewer, and one in which students must change the lyrics of a popular song to reflect the club’s mission. Students also campaigned for the club’s statewide offices.
“It is a chance for them to get a little recognition and show off talents in something other than sports,” said Stan Long, chairman of the State Beta Council.
Beta Club is a service, leadership and honor society. Club members must meet certain academic requirements set by their school and participate in service activities.
Junior Beta is for those in grades 4 through 9, although the majority of students at this week’s convention were sixth to eighth graders.
“You are dealing with the top students, the cream of the crop,” said Greg Carlyle, state council member and headmaster of Heritage Academy in Columbus. “If they do place, it is really an accomplishment.”
Pontotoc Junior High eighth-grader John Fleming, who competed in the speech contest, said the convention was a good preparation for high school Beta club. During the competition, he had to focus on making eye contact and properly enunciating his words.
“It was great watching people from other schools and learning different aspects of Beta from different cities in the state of Mississippi,” he said.
Added classmate Jacob Ginn: “We got to interact with a lot of different schools and meet a lot of people with the same motivation for being here.”
Both the Junior Beta Convention and the Beta Convention for high school students have been held in Tupelo each year since 2006. The high school event takes place in February.
This week’s convention has brought dozens of school buses to the city, and particularly to The Mall at Barnes Crossing. The event draws about 5,000 people when bus drivers and chaperones are counted, Long said.
“There is no other place in Mississippi we feel comfortable having this many people,” he said.
Both events provide opportunities for participants to develop confidence and leadership skills, but the junior convention is unique in that students that age have fewer outlets to compete on a statewide level.
“This allows them to start their leadership development for their future,” said Marsha Hillhouse, sponsor for Pontotoc Junior High. “Before, we always waited until high school. This was our first year with Junior Beta. We thought it would be a great chance to see ways they can excel in different areas and be prepared once they are in high school and college to take on these roles.”
As this week’s event neared its close, a team from N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg performed a baseball-themed dance in the group talent finals.
“From a student’s perspective, this is about team building and making friends,” said Zoe Gunter, 14, an eighth-grader at the school. “You meet people as you walk around throughout the convention.”