University task force partners with community leaders

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – University leaders met with education and community development representatives from Northeast Mississippi on Thursday as part of an effort to boost the area.
In May, University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones and Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum announced that the two universities would form a joint task force dedicated to enhancing the region that both institutions call home.
That task force held its third meeting on Thursday at Day-Brite’s Lighting Institute in Tupelo and invited 21 community participants, including Northeast Mississippi superintendents, college presidents and development foundation presidents.
“We thought the idea of bringing economic developers and educators from the community would add a lot to the group,” said Kyle Steward, executive director of External Affairs at Mississippi State University. “It would allow us to hear what they think we might be able to do to help them.”
Thursday’s participants split into groups discussing three specific topics: economic development, increasing access to higher education and expanding early childhood education while reducing school dropouts.
The economic development group cited the importance of having a point person at each university to communicate with area developers seeking assistance, said University of Mississippi Vice Chancellor of Research Alice Clark. The group also discussed creating a better environment for entrepreneurs.
The higher education group advocated for checklists highlighting the path for seventh- to 12th-grade students to attend colleges and universities. It also pushed for increasing awareness of the community college tuition guarantee program and helping students complete the federal paperwork required to get financial assistance.
The third group said superintendents need to be more aware of the resources available for early-childhood education. Richard Blackbourn, dean of Mississippi State’s College of Education, said that the university’s Early Childhood Institute would make a presentation at an upcoming superintendent conference, for instance.
Blackbourn said that for a community to start one early-childhood classroom, it would cost $25,000 plus salaries and benefits.
“A lot of communities could push that envelope,” he said.
The small groups will continue to meet in the near future before the task force meets as a whole again.
“I see this as a process,” said CREATE Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield, a member of the task force. “I think you will start to see some pilot programs roll out of these discussions.
“If we can get some success stories, we can spread it.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.