Tupelo’s Association for Excellence in Education celebrated the building of ”A Bridge to Excellence” Wednesday at its end-of-school-year public meeting. Before the meeting ended, applause, cheers and tears flowed and mingled from a crowded room of AEE members who were shown how Tupelo Public Schools’ students and teachers built excellent bridges during the past academic year.
The meeting’s setting itself was appropriate and inspiring. The L.D. and Elaine Hancock Leadership Center honors two Tupelo citizens whose extraordinary generosity toward and interest in Tupelo’s public schools places them in a unique category of civic leadership nationwide. The Hancocks, every generation of Tupelo students and parents needs to be reminded the land on which Tupelo High School was built and also made a multi-million-dollar, income producing gift for the school system’s benefit, with no strings attached.
The association, founded in 1982, provides a link from the financial and human resources of the private sector into the Tupelo Public Schools system. The association, with hundreds of individual and corporate members, invests between $90,000 and $100,000 each year in special projects and needs within the Tupelo system. Superintendent of Schools Mike Vinson said AEE often is the academic difference between hitting a baseball one foot short of the 325-foot wall and hitting one 326 feet for a home run.
Five presentations and citations highlighted Wednesday meeting and clearly energized the audience:
– Teresa Koon, a teacher of special education students at Joyner School, convincingly described the progress of 80 students helped in their academic journey (undertaken against formidable barriers) by an AEE grant. Only the most cynical kind of person could not be moved by Koon’s description of a young special education student who, after learning to read for the first time, beamed with pride because she had finished reading her first book from beginning to end.
– Those who question the character and values of public school students, and how values and and character are encouraged by faculty members, should have heard Tupelo High teacher Bonnie Webb and THS Academic Decathlon Team member Sarah Robinson. Robinson was a Speech Gold Medalist at the National Academic Decathlon one of three among more than 300 participants. Her passionate speech about faith, family and personal growth during and after the illness and death of her father, revealed spiritual, intellectual and moral maturity beyond her years.
– Greg Birdsong, a scholarship-winning senior at THS spoke with confidence and eloquence commanded by few adults as he pulled the audience into the world of Julie Hill’s art appreciation classes. Birdsong, headed for a fine arts major next year at Itawamba Community College, said AEE’s investment allowed to hang reproductions of the great masterpieces as they studied the life, talent and technique of the artists. His class’s large reproduction of the post-Impressionist masterpiece, Georges Seurat’s ”Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” hung on the wall behind Birdsong.
– Henry Dodge, Jr., received the association’s 1996 citation for individual distinguished service to public education. Dodge, chief executive officer of Savings Oil, was a founder of AEE in 1982 and has been a persistent, energizing, creativer activist for public education.
Dodge’s wholehearted involvement is a living testament countering the argument that excellence isn’t achievable in public schools. Dodge expects excellence in every endeavor, and he carried that commitment into the Tupelo Public Schools, where his work continues through AEE.
– The corporate award for distinguished service was presented to Action Industries. Action, a giant in the furniture manufacturing business, was founded in Tupelo. Its involvement with AEE came about, in part, because Dodge convinced Action’s executives that investment in public schools’ special needs was an investment in good, future employees. Action executive Roger Bland reaffirmed that commitment Wednesday, telling the audience that Tupelo’s public school students are the future.
People who doubt public education’s potential for reaching the broadest spectrum of students should become involved in AEE. It is an eye-opening, heartening, and mind-broadening experience to see how teachers and students respond creatively and successfully to interest and help from people outside the education establishment.