New council seeks to unite THS, community

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Nearly 30 stakeholders from a variety of groups met for the first time last week to discuss issues involving Tupelo High School and possible solutions.
The newly formed Council of Excellence will meet at least four times each year to present, research and discuss various concerns. It developed from an idea of former Interim Superintendent David Meadows and was also encouraged by new Superintendent Gearl Loden.
The 27-member group includes district and school leaders, teachers, students, parents, community leaders, business and faith-based representatives and others.
“We have representatives from all over the community,” said council member Lori Grelen, whose daughter is a sophomore at THS. “We can work together to help every kid instead of working for one special interest or one group. Hopefully, we can help the high school see what the community thinks and help the community see what the high school is doing.”
The group will be facilitated by Nita Rudy, program director for Parents for Public Schools’ national office in Jackson. It will not have any decision-making authority in regard to school governance or finance but will offer an outlet for discussion on all sides of an issue.
“We are not the school board,” said council member John Oxford of Renasant Bank. “We don’t have any policy power. I think we can bring a lot of communication and issues to the forefront and make sure they are discussed openly from different angles.”
The district will publish contact information of council members on its website so others can come to them with their concerns.
“I see this as a conduit,” said council member James Hull. “I see it as a vehicle of information from the community to the school board and the school system as a whole. I see it as an avenue that transfers information back and forth so we can be in sync.”
During the first meeting, members brainstormed issues they should prioritize from the start. They noted the need for more counselors at the high school to help students prepare for college, especially those who want to go to out-of-state schools. They also noted the need for better communication between the school and community and to address inequities in discipline and academics between students in different groups.
“We talked about how we can unite the community and get rid of this bad image Tupelo High has,” said THS senior and council member Ashton Huey.
“Tupelo High is a great school, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Huey, also vice president of the THS student council, is one of three students in the group. He said he wanted to be involved because he enjoys the opportunity to work with the school to accomplish something.
“I feel like I can better help the school so it will be better for future generations,” he said.
Thirty-five individuals applied to be part of the group. Participants were chosen by a committee of three members of the national staff of Parents for Public Schools.
Grelen wanted to participate because she understands the importance of public support for a school, she said.
“Tupelo is at a crossroads here,” she said. “I think they have a good, strong public school system. It is unique in that there is only one public high school in town. I think that can work in Tupelo’s favor, but they have to keep the public support.
“I wanted to do what I could to improve the public support of the high school and the school system in general. By doing that we will only improve the quality of life here in Tupelo.”
Grelen said she’d like to see the school improve its communication and would also like to see it do more to help the top performing students excel. Both she and Huey noted a need for more counselors, especially to help with college prep.
Hull said the biggest issues that concern him are ways for the school district to facilitate parental involvement, seeing it hire more minority teachers and fostering an improvement in student performance that will also help decrease dropouts. He noted, however, the committee’s concerns supersede his own.
“Many times the faculty and staff don’t reflect the student population numerically, culturally or even psychologically, and I think those three things are vitally important,” he said.
Oxford, meanwhile, said his greatest concern is to see the school address the discipline issue that has been a public concern and to improve achievement gaps.
“I want to look at the performance of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds in the schools and see what we can do to raise the bar for those who are from different disadvantaged areas of our city,” he said.

Council Members
Chip Ashford, Chandler Craig, Doyce Deas, Matthew Dillon, Missy Donovan, Cathy Fitzpatrick, Juanita Floyd, Michael Gratz, Lori Grelen, Robin Haire, Kristen Hare,Amy Harris, Jason Harris, Andi Hildenbrand,
Gloria Holliday, Ashton Huey, James Hull, Michelle Milner, John Oxford, Gerald Patterson, Charles Penson, Mary Ann Plasencia, Bess Robbins, Mike Sowers, Nels Thorderson, Teresa Ware and Trae Wyatt.

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