By NEMS Daily Journal
Tupelo’s public schools have dropped out of the ranks of the state’s elite in recent years, at least as far as test scores are concerned. While the district still offers many advantages not found elsewhere in Mississippi, there simply is no arguing the fact that its overall academic performance has dipped to an unacceptable level for a community that has long prided itself on having an exceptional education system.
It’s no coincidence that TPSD’s declining academic performance has coincided with a decided shift in its demographic profile. In 1990, the district was 70 percent white. Today it’s 44 percent white, 50 percent black and 6 percent other minorities.
That, more than anything else, explains the drop in test scores that has landed Tupelo in the middle ranks of Mississippi school districts with an Academic Watch designation, the fourth tier in a seven-tier system.
Tupelo’s white students still do well in comparison with other white students in the region and state, but the increase in the percentage of black students has brought into clear focus the vast difference between black and white student performance.
The racial achievement gap is not unique to Tupelo, but it’s wider than in most other Mississippi districts. Tupelo has always done a good job of educating its white children, especially those from middle and upper income families. It has not succeeded nearly as well with its black and economically disadvantaged students.
This inequity is both an economic and moral issue with broad implications for the future of the community and the region for which Tupelo is the hub. It’s an issue that requires the urgent and focused attention of the school system and the entire community. The status quo is unacceptable.
The Daily Journal will devote the next three days to an extensive examination of the problem. Education reporter Chris Kieffer spent several months analyzing data and interviewing a wide cross-section of educators and community leaders in order to frame the issue. His stories reflect that there is no magic solution for the achievement gap, but that high expectations for all students and a community-wide effort are essential. And there are successful models, including some right here in Mississippi, from which to learn.
This series of articles won’t be the definitive word on closing the achievement gap, but our hope is that it will help jump-start a serious community conversation about solutions. Nothing less than the future of Tupelo – the strength, reputation and vitality of its schools, the prospects for continued economic success, and the community’s quality of life – hangs in the balance.