OUR OPINION: Hard work gets Okolona moving

By NEMS Daily Journal

The state board of Education’s vote Friday to begin the process of returning Okolona’s schools to local control was both goods news for the community and testimony to a lot of hard work.
State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham credited community involvement for the school district’s turnaround, which has been dramatic in the two years and three months since the state Department of Education had to step in and take over.
That’s always the key to good schools. When the community combines high expectations with appropriate involvement and support, schools tend to meet those expectations. Critical, too, is keeping the interests of children, not adults, at the heart of the enterprise.
The Okolona School District was taken over by the state in February 2010 for a variety of shortcomings, academic and financial. The state has 37 accreditation standards; Okolona was deficient in 34 of them. Today that is down to two, and those are expected to be corrected soon.
When the state assumes control of a school district, the remedies can appear harsh and are usually unsettling for the community.
The superintendent must step down, the local school board is abolished and the state appoints a conservator with far-reaching powers to run the district. But enough determined people in Okolona, both within and outside the schools, chose not to be discouraged and instead rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
Much credit must go to Dr. Mike Vinson, the veteran school leader appointed by the state Board of Education as Okolona’s conservator. Vinson, whose years as Tupelo superintendent saw improvement in the system’s overall academic performance and ranking, possesses a combination of educational, personal and political skills – political in the good sense – that made him well-suited for this assignment. He saw from the beginning the necessity of engaging the community in the effort and early-on built confidence and trust in his leadership.
Of course, Okolona’s return to local control with a newly constituted school board and a new superintendent in the next school year doesn’t guarantee continued success. A new state law makes it tougher on state-run school districts that fall back into their old ways after re-establishing local control. Okolona’s teachers, administrators, parents and the wider community must be vigilant to ensure that doesn’t happen.
But success can beget success, and Okolona should be motivated by what it has done the last two years. So, too, should other districts, including Aberdeen, who have more recently experienced a state takeover. Aberdeen can look at nearby Okolona and see its way through.