Tupelo’s weekend of celebrating and remembering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s achievements and aspirations focuses this year on education, the essential element within King’s hopes and dreams for all, particularly America’s children as they learn and prepare for life and work.
When King said in his “I have a dream” speech in 1963 that he hoped for the day when the black children and white children of Mississippi would walk hand-in-hand it was not for an idle stroll, but as equals and partners in shaping their lives.
Equal education then was a primary push of the civil rights movement.
Integration came and children began walking hand-in-hand in many instances, but an educational achievement gap between African-American and white students stubbornly persists in Tupelo and elsewhere.
Everybody has a stake in closing the gap.
That’s important in Tupelo because in 2011, 73 percent of Tupelo’s over-30 population was white, but 54 percent under 30 were a minority, mostly African-American.
Analysis of the testing done in the Tupelo schools showed in 2011 that scores of white students were 79.5 percent proficient, but the 39.5 percent proficiency among black students placed them among the bottom 40 schools for scores among black students. The 35.5 point gap was the fourth widest in Mississippi.
Mississippi has good examples to emulate in acting to close the gap. Oklahoma, which has some demographics similar to Mississippi because of its large American Indian population, has improved its standing by using early childhood, pre-K education as the foundation for closing achievement gaps.
Oklahoma currently ranks second nationally for access to public pre-K, and it enrolls about 74 percent, one of the highest enrollment rates for a state pre-K program in the nation.
In 2011, Oklahoma had a higher percentage of fourth-graders performing at the Basic level in math than the nation and the South, according to an analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In addition, the state’s American Indian, black and Hispanic fourth-graders narrowed achievement gaps numerically with white students. Oklahoma has higher high school graduation rates than the region and the nation as a whole.
Oklahoma succeeds because it made the necessary commitment. Mississippi can succeed if it does the same.