Region makes gradual gains

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi has made steady progress in improving residents’ income and education over the past decade, but much work remains.
That was the message during Friday’s annual CREATE Foundation State of the Region meeting at the BancorpSouth Conference Center. The outlook focused on a 17-county area that for the first time included Lowndes County, which became a CREATE member this year.
Addressing the region’s progress, CREATE Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield noted gains in per capita income and in the percentage of residents with college degrees and high school diplomas.
“We are still making steady progress,” Whitfield said. “That is my overall message.
“I think we’ve addressed the right things, but it will be a long-term process.”
Other speakers at Friday’s summit included Philip Gunn, the speaker of Mississippi’s House of Representatives who spoke about the state’s future.
Joe Max Higgins, CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK, provided an update on economic development in Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties.
Former Mississippi State Superintendent Tom Burnham addressed the value of leadership in education. Burnham is currently the interim director of the University of Mississippi’s Principal Corps program.
Representatives from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University also spoke about the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, a collaboration between the two institutions that will create an honors college experience for top-performing students who are studying to be teachers. That report was made by MSU Education Dean Richard Blackbourn and Ryan Niemeyer, the program’s director at UM.
In noting the region’s gains, Whitfield highlighted its growth in per capita income from $19,900 in 2000 to $29,603 in 2011. That represented a rise from 66.7 percent of the national average to 71.2 percent.
The key to improving that statistic, Whitfield said, is raising residents’ educational attainment. In 2000, 38 percent of Northeast Mississippi residents had attended college, 30.8 percent had completed high school and gone no further and 31.2 percent were high school dropouts. Eleven years later, 46.2 percent had attended college, 31.9 percent had only completed high school and 21.9 percent had dropped out of school.
Those gains are good, Whitfield said, but the entire country improved during that time so the region continues to lag.
“We are slowly, methodically improving as a region,” he said. “We need some breakthrough, but we are making progress.”
Gunn also spoke about the link between education and economic development. The No. 1 issue in Mississippi is jobs, he said, and attracting companies depends upon having an educated workforce.
Also important to landing industries are the quality of a community’s schools, restaurants, entertainment options and churches, as well as its public safety, he said.
“These are the conversations groups like these need to be having,” he said. “…These are things you need to be working for as you have these discussions.”
Noting the rise in skilled labor jobs – like mechanics, electricians and plumbers – he said schools need to better prepare students for these high-paying careers.
“Not every child wants to go to college,” he said. “They don’t all need the college-prep track. At age 18, they can have a skill and can go to work or go to a community college.”
In speaking about school leadership, Burnham said he is pleased that more emphasis is being put on that topic than ever before. He said the most important quality of a good leader is courage.
“Leadership is the critical element of success in any organization,” he said. “In education we have not put the necessary emphasis on the leadership that is critical to success.”
That is beginning to change, he said. Mississippi recently increased its cut scores on the test educators must pass in order to be licensed as administrators. Those scores are now the toughest in the nation.
The state also will use a new model for evaluating principals in 2014-15, and that tool will consider the comments of teachers, he said.
“If we can instill better leaders, we will have better schools in this state,” he said.
The Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program will accept 20 students a year at both MSU and Ole Miss who meet the standards of each school’s honors college. They will receive full scholarships with stipends for technology and trips to visit the top-performing schools in the country and in the world. They must commit to teach in Mississippi for five years.
“Our idea was to attract individuals to the teaching profession who might not have opted for that,” Blackbourn said.
The initial class had 81 applicants, Niemeyer said. The group of those accepted into the program has an average grade-point average of 3.98 and an average ACT score above 28. Seventy-four percent of them are from Mississippi, with applicants coming from as far away as Illinois and New Jersey.
“We feel it will be a real game-changer for public education in this state,” Niemeyer said.

Click video to hear audio