OUR OPINION: Larger challenges await beyond 2014 diplomas

Tupelo High School’s centennial-year commencement tonight at the BancorpSouth Arena begins the 2014 graduation period for Northeast Mississippi’s high schools, a brief but intense season of celebration for what’s considered the first major step toward adulthood and maturity in American culture.

Several thousand young adults across the region will wear the traditional and iconic mortar boards and gowns in ceremonies inclusive of honored tradition, coveted honors and always an embrace of what’s pushing the Class of 2014 forward toward the next steps.

Many school districts like Tupelo’s have moved through a succession of high school campuses, pushed by growth to expand, forced by natural disaster to rebuild, and driven by the necessity of competition to leave the old and make best use of advancing technology and facilities.

Tupelo High, for example, occupies at least its fourth campus, with two of its previous sites redeveloped and reconfigured for other grade levels.

THS and the other public high schools in Northeast Mississippi remain powerful magnets in their communities, drawing identity from town names but also enhancing community identity through the achievements of students, teachers, teams and clubs.

High schools at their best are microcosms of strong communities, but also leading and sustaining progress.

The Class of 2014 collectively will be among the largest in Mississippi’s history, in part because our state’s high school graduation rate is rising. While still below the national average, districts in 2013 showed a four-year graduation rate of 75.5 percent, the highest rate since recalculations were done in 2007, and a four-year dropout rate of 13.9 percent, a nearly 3 percentage point drop from 2012, the Mississippi Department of Education has reported.

High school graduates this year should consider their education far from complete because the jobs waiting to be filled generally require more than high schools offer in position-specific training and in many of the skills and workplace knowledge required to make the most of a high school diploma, plus more education, short of a college degree.

The facts of educational attainment in Mississippi suggest how much more education is needed:

• 2nd lowest high school graduation rate

• 48th in holding a bachelor’s degree

• 46th in advanced degrees

Mississippi remains 50th in virtually every measure of income and prosperity.

The Class of 2014, beyond high school, is challenged to set the bar several notches higher in every category that can change outcomes for income and quality of life. In that sense, ceremonies during the next few days are an important commencement.