By Chris Kieffer and Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Many questions have been asked during the past three or four years about Tupelo’s future viability as a growing and vibrant community.
At the heart of much of the consternation was the Tupelo Public School District.
The approximately 7,400-student district faced questions about its leadership, discipline and personnel decisions. There also was concern about its academic ranking, which for the previous three years had been Academic Watch, the fourth highest of seven levels used by the Mississippi Department of Education.
An air of optimism began to emerge last March, after then-Amory Superintendent Gearl Loden was tabbed to lead Tupelo’s district. Then came Friday’s news that the district improved its academic ranking by two levels this year, earning a mark of High Performing, or B, the second-best level.
The question is whether the improvement will provide momentum to the school system’s quest to return to its tradition of excellence and whether that will, in turn, re-energize the community at large.
“People are and were willing to give Dr. Loden and his leadership team some time, but no doubt this is a huge leap forward in the spirit of the school system,” Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said on Friday. “It lets him get off to a running start with the wind behind his back.”
City Council members, many of whom last year blamed what they deemed a broken school system for Tupelo’s woes, said they find hope in the new state rankings.
“One of the big issues in the city was our school system – it was really affecting people wanting to live here – and it seems to be settling down now,” said Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis.
Tupelo leaders have struggled to reclaim the city’s stake as Lee County’s most desirable community for families after 2010 Census data revealed it losing ground to places like Saltillo and Guntown.
Reed last year unveiled a sweeping neighborhood revitalization plan to combat the problem. But it was met with opposition from council members who said until the school fixes its troubles, the city will never improve.
Now that Tupelo Public School District’s overall ranking has improved, some of those same critics think it’s time to re-examine the issue.
“The school system is a product of our neighborhoods, said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. “I think it’s time to revisit that and talk about neighorhood reinvestment and removing blight.”
The city has taken small steps toward that goal since last year, despite the failure of Reed’s large-scale proposal. It boosted code enforcement citywide, including the adoption of a newly revamped rental permit program. It also allocated $600,000 annually to neighborhood improvements.
But council president Fred Pitts said the school system’s better ranking means it’s time to consider other measures now, as well.
Said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings: “I’m open-minded to anything that’s going to improve the city and the schools.”
Meanwhile, the district’s improvement also has potential to impact economic development.
“High-quality public education has always been one of our community’s strengths and plays an important part in business retention and recruitment,” said Shane Homan, senior vice president of economic development for the Community Development Foundation. “CDF is proud of the Tupelo Public Schools’ and the Lee County Schools’ continued commitment toward excellence and congratulates them on obtaining these ranking achievements.”
One improved ranking does not necessarily mean all is rosy in the school system. But some who have expressed past concerns say they are optimistic.
“I am in support of Dr. Loden, and I hope the district gives Dr. Loden all he needs to make the choices to further the advancement of our district and our teachers,” said businessman Johnny Robbins, who joined with a group of Tupelo residents last year to display yard signs critical of city and school leaders.
Local furniture store owner Lisa Hawkins called the results encouraging.
“We don’t want to look backward, we’re looking ahead,” said Hawkins, who in 2011 served as a board member of LEAPS, a nonprofit formed to support the district, but one that also acknowledged public concerns with the schools.
“We’re looking for even more successful students. The teachers I talk to and most people in the district are very pleased. We seem to have a superintendent who unites, and I think he is doing a fabulous job and we are lucky in our community to have someone come in and lead us in a positive direction.”