Baby Steps, Inc., conducts a monthly Children's Defense Fund community meeting and this month's featured guest was Dr. Ilean Richards. Richards serves as Program Director for Leadership and School Improvement for the Mississippi Center for Education Innovation. Richards also has 40 years experience in the field of education as a teacher and administrator. She served as Superintendent of the Leland School District and faced many of the same challenges now faced in the Okolona district.
The district was placed under a conservatorship last spring due to financial and academic failures. Dr. Mike Vinson is currently overseeing the operations of the district.
Richards said for a school to be successful, community involvement is a necessity.
"We have to have that," Richards said. "We have to think what can we as a community do to forward the community and the school."
Richards said the time is now for community, church and business leaders to step up and make a difference in the school system.
"Leadership matters in any school, any community, any business and any home," Richards said. "Your school cannot be any stronger than your community. You must have a shared vision to be able to come together and craft a common focus."
Richards said although the mentality of the community needs to be on of, "our school," all must remember the facility services the children.
"All of our work has to be centered around the development of the child," Richards said.
Richards recommended holding community meetings to determine the key points to address within the school and warned against rushing into a time line. Rather, she pointed out that the process of turning a school around to a positive direction is ongoing.
"Begin a task, finish it and start the next," Richards said. "Don't focus on getting done quick. Schools are going to have to focus on one thing - children, children, children. Get rid of all this stuff that is taking our attention away from our children."
Richard recommended school administration reach out into the community and work in partnership with local day care facilities, Head Start agencies and preschools, helping to prepare the children before they are school age.
Richards encouraged those present to take a stand and use their influence to draw in more partners to assist the schools in change.
"You are a leader in your own right and you have the ability to influence someone," Richards said. "What are you using your leadership for? To build up or to tear down? If this community can come together, then two years from now you should not have to have a conservator in your school."
Conservator Vinson and Okolona Elementary School Principal, Dr. Gregory Stephens, were in attendance for the program and gave brief reports on the upcoming semester. Vinson is promoting the formation of a P-16 Advisory Council made of residents with an interest in moving the Okolona School in a positive direction.
"This council will be the group that sets the vision and goals for the Okolona schools," Vinson said. He said his personal goal is for all students to graduate with job skills to prepare them for the workforce or preparation to enter college.
"Our council will steer us and help us to get to that point where Okolona is thriving," Vinson said.
Stephens said his is promoting an open-door policy at OES and throughout the district to keep lines of communication open to parents and community members.
"I think the direction we're heading in is a positive one," Stephens said. "We are going to strive to make sure we are doing the things that are beneficial to our children, not only at the Elementary School, but throughout the district."
Reverend Odell Bowens spoke to the need for the community to make a positive presence felt in the district.
"It is time the community came together and stopped worrying about all this mess and got our priorities in order," Bowen said. "We've come to here, but we don't have to stay here. I believe we're going to do it."
Bowen brought cheers as he concluded, "Dr. Vinson, we're glad you're here - but you're stay is going to be short."