But Mississippi's new, unforgiving school accountability system has exposed a widening gap between Tupelo's expectations and assumptions about its schools and their actual performance.
Tupelo is currently not among the top-ranked school systems in the state or region as measured by student test scores and the rate of improvement from year to year. It's in the middle of the pack, and for the second year in a row it has earned an Academic Watch ranking, the fourth level in a seven-tier system.
That's a tough reality for Tupeloans to contemplate, given the degree to which the community's identity and progress have been wrapped up in the expectation of an exceptional school system. Yet recognition of reality is the first step toward changing it.
Tupelo's current state ranking doesn't mean students can't get a high-quality education in the system. Our third child will graduate next spring from the Tupelo schools, and I can vouch for the many excellent teachers, the outstanding range of course offerings and the overall quality of our children's academic and extracurricular experiences. All three have been well-prepared for the next educational level.
And it's undoubtedly true that test scores aren't the only measure of a school system's quality.
Nevertheless, the facts bear out that Tupelo isn't doing enough to ensure that all students learn what they need to learn - certainly in order for the system to be considered top-tier.
How did a school system long perceived, locally and around Mississippi, to be among the state's elite find itself confronting a noticeable decline in important performance indicators?
It's not an easy question to answer, but the possibility of complacency, a common pitfall in any organization that experiences long-term success, must be considered. Might Tupelo's school system, over time, have lost some of the edge for continuous improvement that for so long has driven the schools and the community at their best?
The community itself bears responsibility on several fronts. The rock-solid unanimity of Tupelo behind its public schools - in support and enrollment - has experienced some cracks in recent years with the growth of a private school alternative, draining away the energy and involvement of a small but influential segment of the community.
Tupelo also has failed to address a long-standing shortage of affordable, attractive, middle-class housing, which has driven many young families into surrounding communities and resulted in a boost for the area public schools where their children have landed.
Demographic changes, which are intertwined with the housing issue, are indisputably part of the equation. For the first time this school year, a slight majority of Tupelo's students are racial minorities. Twenty-five years ago, minorities made up roughly a quarter of the student population. Given the pronounced achievement gap between white and minority students, that has made a difference in test scores.
But that the achievement gap exists in the first place speaks to another reality. While Tupelo has always done an above-average job of educating and nurturing students already disposed to be above-average academic performers, it has had less success with children who come to school with built-in disadvantages, as minorities disproportionately do. Closing the racial and socioeconomic status achievement gap is one of the great challenges Tupelo faces.
Dr. Randy Shaver, on the job as superintendent for little more than a year, has the challenge of finding ways to reassert Tupelo's heritage and get the schools where they need to be. Obviously there will be some pain involved, because the status quo won't suffice. Changes and new initiatives have already been undertaken and more are coming.
The next few years are absolutely critical, not only for Tupelo's schools but for the community itself. If Tupelo allows the recent trends to accelerate, it will eventually lose its distinctiveness and risk becoming just another economically challenged and socially divided Mississippi city.
It's safe to assume that's not what Tupelo wants, but it's time for the community to again raise its expectations for its schools - and rally its support. That, after all, is the Tupelo way.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or email@example.com.