LLOYD GRAY: A boost for confidence

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

The Tupelo school system and the city got a much-needed psychological boost last week with the release of state school rankings. Tupelo became a High Performing, or “B” district, under the state’s new grading system after three years of floundering two levels below at Academic Watch, which would have been a “D” this year. That doesn’t mean Tupelo’s schools are where they need to be. Nor does one year’s success guarantee sustained results, especially as accountability gets tougher next year.
But the results show what a focused effort can do and that a turnaround in student academic performance is possible. It’s a confidence booster for the schools and the community. A demonstration of the capacity for improvement was critical at this juncture in school system and city history.
Elsewhere in Northeast Mississippi, results demonstrated again that the region’s public schools outpace the state’s as a whole. Half of the 32 school districts in the 16-county area were High Performing, or “B,” compared with one-third statewide that were B or A – Star, under the old system.
Of particular note were 12 “A” schools in the region, including Saltillo High and Mooreville High in Lee County, and Pontotoc’s near-miss at becoming the state’s fourth A district.
Of course, measuring against the rest of Mississippi isn’t sufficient. Northeast Mississippi must aspire to higher things, especially in narrowing racial and economic achievement gaps and improving graduation rates. Sadly, demographics are still destiny across much of Mississippi. Most “F” districts this year, not surprisingly, are overwhelmingly minority and poor. That includes Okolona, which has been under state control.
In Lee County, the majority-minority schools in the southern portion of the district were all Academic Watch (D) and Verona Elementary was Low Performing, or F. Their performance kept the district from improving its 2011 ranking of Successful, now C.
This pattern of underperformance in high-minority, high-poverty school settings is not unique to Mississippi but we face a legacy of poverty and racial discrimination that makes the achievement gap an especially tough challenge here. That heritage can’t be an excuse to accept the status quo.
Tupelo’s own achievement gap has been primarily responsible for its lower rankings in recent years as minorities have come to make up a slight majority of the district’s students. But we need look no further than Clinton, a system with demographics similar to Tupelo’s, to see that the gap can be narrowed while still keeping achievement high among the students already doing well. Clinton is one of only three Star, or “A,” school districts in the state this year.
Trends suggest the demographics of most school districts in Mississippi and the nation will continue to change in future years to a higher proportion of minority students. A moral as well as practical imperative exists to make schools effective for all our children.
That’s what good public schools – the cornerstone of strong communities – should be all about.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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