State of Region sounds wake-up call

– Out of 100 Mississippi students in the ninth grade in 1996:
– 61 graduated from high school
– 46 entered college
– 14 graduated with either a two- or four-year degree

By Michaela Gibson Morris
Daily Journal
TUPELO – The Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi delivered tough medicine Thursday at its annual State of the Region meeting.
Northeast Mississippi, attendees were told, trails both the nation and the state in per-capita income, and too many people lack the education they need to compete in the new economy.
“We can continue to curse the darkness,” Lewis Whitfield, CREATE Foundation senior vice president, told more than 300 people from around Northeast Mississippi who gathered at the BancorpSouth Conference Center in Tupelo. “Or we can look at this as the best opportunity for Northeast Mississippi to prepare for the 21st century.”
In 2007, the per capita income was:
* $38,615 for the United States.
* $29,040 for Mississipppi.
* $26,022 for Northeast Mississippi.
Researchers attribute more than half of the income gap to low education levels, Whitfield said. In the 16-county region of Northeast Mississippi, 31 percent of adults don’t have a high school diploma.
“We cannot compete in the new national economy with those kinds of educational attainment,” said Whitfield, who presented research compiled by Steve Suits of the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation. “We trail the rest of the state.”
‘Not rocket science’
The solutions aren’t rocket science, but they aren’t easy, said State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, one of the meeting’s main speakers.
“For long-term, sustained growth, we’re going to have to think very differently,” Bounds said.
Current dropout prevention efforts are starting to bear fruit, with record numbers of students graduating in 2007 and 2008. Bounds expects another record year in 2009.
Community colleges are working to reclaim the 400,000 Mississippians over the age of 25 who dropped out of school, said Eric Clark, executive director of the community college board.
“We have to get them back into the system,” Clark said. “They can have a second bite at the apple of the American dream.”
The person and their family benefit from better income opportunities and an improved quality of life. The community benefits, too.
“Dropouts are statistically a drain on the tax base,” Clark said before the meeting. When people earn a GED and get further education, “they are a blessing and contribute more to the community.”
Because of GED recovery programs, developed in Northeast Mississippi, state funding was dedicated to expanding programs at community colleges around Mississippi, Clark said.
“You’re a great example,” said Clark, who also cited the new tuition guarantee program that gives graduates in 21 school districts access to two years at a community college.
Early efforts
Long-term dropout prevention begins well before kids enter kindergarten, Bounds said. Eighty percent of brain development occurs between birth and age 4. Early childhood education is an essential component of making sure children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn to read.
“Lots of places are doing very good work,” Bounds said, such as Head Start, private centers and churches. “We need to ensure that we have quality.”
When children enter kindergarten, educators are working furiously to teach them to read proficiently by the end of third grade. Kids who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade are exponentially more likely to drop out.
Kids living in poverty – 47 percent of Northeast Mississippi students – come into school as a group with the vocabulary of a 2 1/2 year-old, putting them significantly behind.
“We’ve got to do seven years of work in four years,” Bounds said.
Quality early childhood programs can significantly decrease that gap.
Culture shift
The overarching challenge revolves around a culture shift about the value of education for all Mississippians. In the 20th century, willingness to work hard in a factory or in the fields could be translated into a good wage. In the new economy, most jobs require training beyond high school, Clark said.
“You can’t make a living for your family at a garment factory,” said Clark. “Those jobs are gone.”
The solution, as outlined by the Southern Education Foundation, lies in a broad community effort that:
* Provides adequate resources for learning.
* Increases resources for students who need the most help.
* Improves teacher quality and supply.
* Strengthens college readiness.
* Provides more financial aid.
“We need to light bonfires,” Whitfield said. “People are not valuing education.”
Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or michaela.morris@djournal.com.

 

Michaela Morris/NEMS Daily Journal