High-quality schools help communities grow

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

When Northeast Mississippi begins feeling the growth that follows Toyota’s opening, many of its communities will compete against each other to lure new residents.
Those moving into the area will evaluate housing prices, park sizes and distances to stores when deciding where they want to live.
They also will consider schools.
“More than ever, parents are choosing where to live based on the school system,” said Shane Homan, senior vice president of economic development for Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation.
Because many of Mississippi’s school districts have improved their quality, Homan said, those parents have more choices about where to live and send their children.
In the most recent school rankings released by the Mississippi Department of Education, 22 of Northeast Mississippi’s 32 school districts ranked in the top three of seven levels – Star, High Performing and Successful.
Maintaining and improving those numbers will be important.
“Quality education is one of the best economic development tools there is,” said State Economist Darrin Webb. “Industries look for places where their employees can know their children are getting a good education. People go to areas where there is good quality education.”
In the most recent census data, Saltillo grew by 40 percent over the previous 10 years to 1,359 residents. Its mayor, Bill Williams, cited the quality of its schools as first among several reasons for the city’s growth.
Saltillo Elementary was ranked Successful in the state accountability rankings, which are based on student scores on state standardized tests taken by third- to eighth-graders and some high school students.
Meanwhile Guntown Middle, which is used by Saltillo residents, and Saltillo High were each High Performing, the second-highest level.
Saltillo High was the only high school in Mississippi that was nominated by the state for a national Blue Ribbon award. The winners of that award will be named in the fall.
Guntown, whose residents use the same schools as Saltillo, added 900 residents for a 76 percent growth rate.
Six Northeast Mississippi schools were ranked as Star Schools last fall: Rienzi Elementary, North Pontotoc High, Oxford High, Marietta Elementary, Booneville High and Pontotoc Junior High. They were among 53 in Mississippi to earn the state’s highest level.
The Amory, Booneville, Corinth, Itawamba, Monroe County, Oxford, Pontotoc City, Pontotoc County, Tishomingo County and Union County school districts were all ranked High Performing. The rankings consider both test scores and student improvement on the test from one year to another.
The issue of quality schools will be particularly important in Tupelo, a community that has had a long tradition of supporting public education.
“I think Tupelo’s crowning jewel is our public school system,” said Homan, who helps recruit new companies to the region.
That jewel has lost some of its luster recently after being ranked in the middle of the state’s accountability ratings for the last two years. Tupelo was ranked Academic Watch, the fourth of the seven levels.
The school district has also been under a microscope as city leaders analyze evidence of a decline of Tupelo’s middle class over the last decade. Some have said that Tupelo must boost its middle class to improve its school system.
Others claim that declining schools have prompted middle class residents to leave. They’ve said that schools must improve their discipline before the city can reverse outward middleclass migration.
The district announced this week that Chief Operating Officer Billy Crews will review concerns about discipline and enrollment trends in Tupelo Schools. The process, which has not yet been outlined, will involve students, parents, teachers and community members, the district said.
As the city surges into the next decade, one of its most critical issues will be improving its schools and how they’re perceived.
Tupelo Schools have begun several attempts to do so – providing students with laptops in an effort to prepare them for jobs of the future and adding more training to boost teachers. The district has added programs that target groups at risk of not graduating: student mothers and middle schoolers who have twice failed. It will begin requiring many of its brightest students to take more rigorous courses.
Tupelo’s schools also will continue to be measured by improvement they makes on state tests.
“Communities that have had poor school systems and have succeeded are not many,” said David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the CDF. “I know our community has the expectation that our public school system maintain its vitality and continue to thrive.”
Maintaining that vitality will require a community effort, Rumbarger said.
“I would hate to envision a case where we lose that confidence,” Rumbarger said. “Before it happened, you would see a lot of action on multiple fronts to prevent that. I would think that the community would fight tooth and nail.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.