By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – A North Carolina-based nonprofit that specializes in helping Southern communities better connect their schools and employers will begin a project in Northeast Mississippi.
MDC Inc. will analyze Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties with a focus on how its school systems can better produce graduates with the skills its workforce demands. Its work is being funded by the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund.
That $50 million endowment was created by the automaker to enhance education in the eight public school districts of the three counties that joined together to bring it to the region.
“We are going to look at what is here, where the employment opportunities are and what the pathways to work look like,” said MDC President David Dodson.
He and MDC Senior Program Director Colin Austin were in Tupelo on Tuesday to speak about their project to community college, school district and business leaders, as well as members of the Education Fund Advisory Committee.
“We want to talk about a comprehensive initiative we believe can truly lift our school systems to new heights,” said Sean Suggs, vice president of administration for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi and a member of the committee.
Between now and November, the nonprofit will deliver a baseline assessment, review local data, interview key stakeholders, study the local workforce and convene focus groups. Ultimately, it will deliver a final report designed to help a leadership group focus its priorities.
The organization aims to help communities “close the gaps that separate people from opportunity and success.” Dodson said they want to ensure children from the region to not only reach their top earning potential, but also to stay in the region and thrive.
“The focus of the endowment fund is K-12, but the function of K-12 education is to prepare students for a career,” said CREATE Foundation President Mike Clayborne, who facilitates the advisory committee.
This project, he said, will help to better align the K-12, community college and university systems with the needs of employers.
“We want the same thing, for our students to be well-prepared in what they choose for their life’s work, and we hope it aligns with opportunities in our region,” Clayborne said.
Having the endowment is a big advantage for the region, Dodson said.
“I don’t know of another region with a small city and rural communities surrounding it with resources like that focused on this issue,” he said. “The challenge is how to use those as a tool and not just distributed to small projects, but to move the community forward in a strategic way.”