LLOYD GRAY: Strengthening the foundation of Tupelo's story

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

If there’s a single, fundamental editorial principle that has guided this newspaper for nearly 80 years, it is this: A community or a state can be no better than the education it provides.
Strong public schools in communities with high expectations and equally high levels of engagement and support for those schools are the key not only to improving individuals’ lives but to broader economic prosperity and social cohesiveness. Where such schools and community support exist in Mississippi, economic and social conditions are uniformly better than in places where the reality is different. I’ve looked, but I can’t find any exceptions to this rule.
This is why the maintenance of Tupelo’s tradition of strong public schools is absolutely essential. If the broad-based support and personal investment of Tupelo citizens in the public school system becomes a thing of the past, so will the Tupelo Story. That story – of a community that lifted itself up out of nothing to become an economic development model – will not be sustained without public schools as its foundation.
We have preached that message since George McLean bought this newspaper 77 years ago and in the 28 years since his death. We’ll continue to preach it.
At the same time, we understand that a school system, like a city, can never rest on its laurels. Both the city of Tupelo and its school system have probably been doing some of that in recent years. In the meantime, challenges have arisen in both the city and its schools that will take a unified community effort to meet effectively, and they are bound together.
One involving the schools that keeps coming up is discipline. I’ve heard parents who wonder what the fuss is about. They’ve seen no serious problems in their children’s schools.
My own daughter, our third and last child in the school system, insists when we ask her that she’s witnessed no significant change at the high school in the four years she’s been there. And we’ve never had the least concern about her safety or the orderliness of her classes.
But other parents and students and some teachers say otherwise from their experience, that they see more unruly students who may be disruptive influences in the classroom. Some of that no doubt is true, and making the topic all the more sensitive is that the observations coincide with a shift in the system’s enrollment to a majority of minority students.
But as tends to happen when a topic like this takes on a life of its own in a community, the rumor mill works overtime, facts get distorted and perception becomes reality. While many sincere, well-meaning people have expressed legitimate concerns, and are doing so in a constructive way, there are unquestionably some people who wish the system ill and who will take this opportunity to exploit fears and raise unnecessary alarm.
As this issue takes on greater public visibility, it’s vitally important that everyone in the community, within or outside the school system, remember that rational, responsible, public-spirited discussion be the order of the day. Fomenting division and distrust will not solve any problems and will in fact make addressing issues more difficult.
So back to the original statement about this newspaper’s history regarding education. The Daily Journal has long seen reporting on education at all levels as its essential responsibility. Locally, that means celebrating accomplishments and continually underscoring what is good and right about our schools, in Tupelo, Lee County and throughout the region.
But we also have a responsibility to report about difficult and contentious issues, and the discipline question is surely one of those. We see our role as helping to put issues in perspective, calling attention to possible solutions and constructive efforts, and to the extent possible, setting forth the facts and weeding out the distortions.
Today’s stories by education reporter Chris Kieffer attempt to do those things. They’re not definitive by any means, but they acknowledge that the issue is on the collective mind of the community and that the school system is attempting to respond.
If ever there were a time for the famed “Tupelo Spirit” to manifest itself, now is it. What can we do together to strengthen, not weaken, the community’s bond with its schools should be the question on everybody’s mind in Tupelo these days.
We’ll try to do our part. The stakes in the outcome simply couldn’t be any higher.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.