By Adam Armour
Itawamba County Times
FULTON – Itawamba Agricultural High School was recently named one of the country’s top 500 schools serving low-income students, according to Newsweek’s 2016 Beating the Odds report.
The study, which is primarily based on surveys of the schools, accounts for schools’ college-readiness, graduation rates and the number of high school seniors enrolled in some form of college in relation to the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches.
The Itawamba high school, located just outside of Fulton, ranked 400th.
According to the report, IAHS had a college-readiness score of 67.9 percent, a graduation rate of 96.1 percent, with 87.2 percent of last year’s graduating seniors having enrolled in college at the time of the study. The school’s poverty rate was 54.1 percent.
IAHS was one of five Mississippi schools to make the list. Others include Pass Christian, ranked 199; Tishomingo County, ranked 301; Shaw, ranked 446; and Lafayette, ranked 463.
The school’s principal, Trae Wiygul, said students from low-income families often have higher hills to climb on their journeys from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Those uphill battles often start before the students even step into a classroom.
“A lot of these kids start off behind their peers,” Wiygul said. “They don’t have access to elite pre-K schools, so they’re at a disadvantage early.”
Those kinds of disadvantages continue following low-income students throughout their academic careers. For instance, lower income families may not have access to computers, a tool now as common in education as books and pencils.
Even if they do, they may not have access to high-speed internet at home – or internet at all.
“That’s one of the bigger obstacles we have to overcome,” Wiygul said. “A lot of our kids don’t have access to the internet at home.”
That, Wiygul said, puts the students at a significant disadvantage.
While the school offers computers with internet access, it’s not always feasible for a student to arrive early or stay late in order to study for a test or write a research paper.
Couple that with a school that serves a largely rural community, with some students riding a bus for more than an hour before arriving at school each day, and the burden of trying to keep pace with their peers can be daunting or seemingly impossible.
Wiygul said it’s important for the school’s faculty and teachers to try to accommodate their students as best they can, regardless of means. He said administrators schedule remediation time and have tutors come to the school several days a week to assist struggling students.
Most importantly, Wiygul said the high schools’ teachers build a rapport with their students. That bond is important because it encourages both sides to work harder.
“It’s about trust,” Wiygul said. “If the kids go in there believing they are going to have success, it makes the success much easier to attain.”
That, he said, is the most important statistic of all.
Although Wiygul said it’s nice to be included on lists like Newsweek’s Beating the Odds, he doesn’t believe it says anything that he doesn’t already know.
“All our kids are important,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from. When it comes to educating our kids, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a statistic.”