LLOYD GRAY: Tupelo’s uniqueness at risk

By Lloyd Gray

Tupelo is a city that has always been proud of its uniqueness. Its strong, confident self-image has been in stark contrast to the defensive, reactive posture of so many Mississippi communities.
Nothing has defined that uniqueness more than Tupelo’s history of public education. For decades, the Tupelo Public Schools have been the place where people of all races, economic levels and social groups have met in a common enterprise, and because the schools served everybody, they were supported in a way that other communities of similar and larger size could only envy.
Unlike so many other places, Tupelo “got it” that excellent and inclusive public schools were the foundation for a socially cohesive and economically prospering community. Tupelo by conscious effort avoided the draining impact of “segregation academies” in the 1960s and ‘70s that instantly or gradually divided other Mississippi communities along racial lines when integration came.
This is the legacy of uniqueness Mayor Jack Reed Jr. cautioned is at risk in his State of the City address last week. He urged the city’s business and professional parents – the group most able and likely to send their children elsewhere – to think about the civic ramifications of leaving the public schools.
If trends continue and the system no longer represents a racial, social and economic composite of the city, Reed said, “we will not be the best city we can be. We can be a fine city, but we won’t be an exceptional city. We won’t be able to claim we’re different from Jackson, or Meridian, or Hattiesburg, or Gulfport, or Greenville or Greenwood…”
I’ve lived in four of those places and I know from experience it’s the broad-based support for and enrollment in the public schools, more than any other single factor, that has differentiated Tupelo from those cities. It’s a key reason our family chose to settle here more than 20 years ago. I know that’s true for many others of my age peers and older as well.
Today Tupelo is under the stress of factors hardly unique to it – they affect every city when it gets to a certain size. It begins with the decline of older neighborhoods, the shortage of newer, affordable housing and the outward migration of middle-class whites. That changes the racial composition of the schools, which then causes a level of discomfort for others, and they leave, too, either for private schools or nearby districts.
When a certain “tipping point” is reached, the pace accelerates and it’s not long before the system turns overwhelmingly minority. The white middle class, along with the business and professional leadership, has opted out of the public schools – or out of the city itself – almost entirely in most of those communities Reed mentioned.
In the past, Tupelo’s unity in its public schools has sent a message to potential residents and business investors alike: This community isn’t divided racially, socially or economically. Everybody sees themselves in the same boat, living and working together. If you don’t think that’s been one of the big reasons for Tupelo’s economic success, think again.
Today the pressure is in the other direction, away from a unique Tupelo to a city much like those others. The big question is how Tupelo will respond.
The schools must do their part by continuing on a path of improvement and responsiveness. They’re not off the hook for helping to turn the trend around. But parents and the wider community must be cognizant of how decisions made now about schools will affect Tupelo for years, even decades, to come.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.