None of the speakers minced words or pulled punches at Thursday’s annual State of the Region meeting in Tupelo: Northeast Mississippi faces big challenges in education, the foundation on which will be built winning the long-sought prize of achieving the national per capita income.
Sponsored by the private-sector, civic-leadership-driven Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, the 16th annual meeting drew several hundred people to the BancorpSouth Conference Center.
A sense of urgency – not panic – expressed by each speaker drew renewed attention to our 16-county region’s educational/economic shortfalls measured against the rest of the nation – and the rest of Mississippi.
Presenting compelling views and information about what must be done were State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds; CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield, who is liaison to the commission; Mississippi Community Colleges’ chief Eric Clark; commission Chairman Billy Crews; marketing executive and adult basic education advocate Tom Robinson; and Chairwoman-elect Gloria Kellum.
Whitfield used compelling information prepared by Southern Education Foundation vice president Steve Suitts, who could not attend because of serious family illness.
Citing Suitts’ work, Whitfield showed statistics of disturbing achievement gaps between Caucasian and African-American students, a flattened economic growth rate compared to the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and an actual decline in the percentage of national per capita income earned in the region.
The zenith of income percentage was 70 in 1995; it’s now 69 percent:
- $38,615 for the United States.
- $29,040 for Mississippi.
- $26,022 for Northeast Mississippi.
Crews and Whitfield both cited our region’s unacceptable 69 percent adult high school graduation rate – leaving nearly a third of all adults short of a diploma, essential to hope for good jobs.
We believe the uniformity of ideas and urgency cited by the presenters was powerfully summed up in five points offered by Whitfield:
- Community leaders must become dramatically more deeply involved in support of education, especially in raising expectations.
- Employ breakthrough thinking because “we’ve got a breakdown,” he said.
n We must focus major financial investment on early childhood (pre-kindergarten) education – the most intellectually fertile years of life. “It’s stupid not to have a great pre-k program,” Whitfield commented.
- Erase the racial performance gap.
- Provide new resources for truly creative and successful approaches to teaching and learning.
The commission’s membership – stretching from Corinth to Starkville and Fulton to Oxford represents the most progressive thinking in our region and a remarkable willingness to establish goals and see them through.
This fall’s community college freshmen in the region are partly comprised of students attending with guaranteed tuition provided by bold public/private partnerships in several counties, but unfortunately not in all counties. It was the commission’s goal first, and the idea was worked until a way was found to achieve success.
Such significant success, however, is offset to a degree by the still-unacceptable dropout numbers statewide and in the region. Superintendent Bounds said Mississippi loses 14,000 students every year – equivalent to the population of some counties. In 10 years, that rate would be equivalent to more than triple the 42,000 residents estimated in 2009 in Lafayette County.
In addition, Whitfield noted that no school district in the region equals the national average per student expenditure investment in education.
In higher education, despite having the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University in the region, the percentage of enrolled college-age students is lower than the statewide average. Only 14 of every 100 high school freshmen will graduate college – community colleges and universities combined.
We clearly remain in a self-defeating posture, and it must change radically and quickly if we are to achieve full competitiveness and success.
“We don’t need to light just a candle,” Whitfield noted. ‘We need a bonfire.”
NEMS Daily Journal