Great public schools are often touted by communities for the positive impact they have on local business activity, as well as attracting new companies. In fact, having a level five — the top ranking — for a school district in Mississippi can be a major selling point.
“There is a direct relationship on how outsiders look at your community,” said Max D. Hipp, president, Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and Chamber of Commerce. “The strength of the schools is always a vital factor in not only the quality of life, but potentially the quality of employees in the community.”
The Oxford School District is rated level five, and the Lafayette County schools are also rated high. Hipp said they advertise that as part of being a good place to live and do business in any literature that goes out. It is all part of what makes up a superior quality of life.
“Quality of life, even though it sounds intangible, has definitely been a factor in some significant investments we have had here in this community,” Hipp said.
Being home to a major university is a significant factor in the support for public schools in the community.
“I grew up in Oxford,” Hipp said. “Even 40 years ago the quality of our schools was superior because of the impact of the university and its faculty. It increases the quality of education in our community. It is a given when you have a community college or senior college in your community, you going to have a more educated workforce and a more educated population in general. You have tremendous access to teachers.”
Factors coming together
Dr. Jerry E. Webb, superintendent of education, Oxford School District, said a large number of factors come together to make a great school: The district has a pre-kindergarten program; lower pupil/teacher ratios in grades one through four with local funding (15/1 in grade one and 20/1 in grades two through four); single-gender classes in grades five and six; local student retention program designed to target at-risk students at the middle/high school levels; and rigorous math offerings consisting of pre-algebra in grade six, algebra I in grade seven and geometry in grade eight that allows four additional years of math in grades nine through 12.
Foreign language offerings include two years of Latin in grades seven and eight and four years of German, French and Spanish in grades nine through 12. There are extensive offerings of advanced placement courses, a highly qualified staff with advanced degrees and national board certification, a comprehensive program of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities for students and an aggressive capital improvement program for the schools.
Webb said businesses can help make their local schools superior by participation and assistance to school administrators in business-related management training, and participating in the “Career Pathways” program instituted by the state superintendent of education that promotes coordinated internships for students in grade 11 and 12 to support their academic interests and career aspirations.
The superintendent of another level five district, Dr. Lee Childress, superintendent of the Corinth School District, said having a great school starts with a vision for academic excellence.
“Once that vision for academic excellence for all students is established, the school district must then collaborate with all school officials, teachers, parents, community organizations and other interested citizens in order to help all children achieve the success that they need to receive a good education,” Childress said. “Here in Corinth the school district, I believe, does an excellent job at that. The key is that vision for excellence, and everyone having a plan to maintain that.
“We are partnering with many community agencies to provide individual reading tutorials, mentoring activities and physical fitness activities. We also collaborate with two other community agencies to offer after school tutorial programs in the neighborhoods where the children live.”
It isn’t enough to just have a great school. Another important element is a good support system in the community to promote the well being of children overall. In Corinth individuals in the business community including attorneys, bankers, insurance salesmen, engineers and retired teachers are involved in volunteer efforts that provide a strong base for the success of children.
“I think that is important because it exposes our children to these individuals who can share their successes, and can also share with these students the trying times they have had,” Childress said. “That gives them a boost not just academically, but also emotionally and socially, to help them succeed in school.”
Businesses can help by giving employees release time to participate in tutoring or mentoring activities. And schools also certainly appreciate business support in the form of the Adopt-a-School program and other types of financial support.
Another key to success is strong faculty and staff. Childress said that means principals and administrators should be allowed to hire teachers who function best in the classroom.
“That is one of keys to Corinth’s success,” Childress said. “We are going to hire whoever is the best. That has helped us.”
While they have had a successful school system for many years, the district is constantly looking for ways to improve or enhance learning opportunities. That takes collaborative work between administrators and teachers, and the support of parents. “There are ways to tweak what we are doing to make the situation even better,” Childress said. “For schools to continue to excel, you have to constantly examine what you are doing and look for ways to be better.”
Smaller districts tops, too
Size isn’t always the main factor. Tishomingo is among the level five schools in the state in a smaller population area. Gary Matthews, executive director of the Tishomingo County Development Foundation, said the quality of local schools is one of the top three issues that companies examine before they even come for the first visit. “It is a critical issue,” Matthews said. “First, they want a qualified workforce that is trainable in today’s technology. Secondly, of course, they want their own children to be well prepared for higher education.”
Matthews said local business and governmental leaders made it a major objective some years ago to have the best school system in the state.
“And they have done an outstanding job working towards that goal,” he said. “It definitely takes leadership from every level of the community. Business and industry participate actively in the school system. You very often see business and industry management talking with classes, conducting student tours of their business and industry.”
On virtually every economic development projects he has worked, the quality of the schools has been a top factor. The other two major factors are the location and quality of the workforce.
Tradition and a heritage are part of what makes good schools, says John B. Moore, superintendent of education, Tishomingo County Schools, Iuka.
“But the main thing in this area is it takes a community effort,” Moore said. “We have good support from business, all types of lay people, and from parents. All of the students take pride in what they do. We have a great support staff. You can’t leave anything out. Good administrative leadership on the part of principals and other administrators and central office staff, good things happening in cafeterias, clean schools — all of those things contribute to academic success. The very grassroots is teachers being effective teachers with good classroom management.”
Good classroom management includes teachers being adequately supported in disciplinary areas.
“We try hard to give teachers and principals support in discipline areas while being fair to the student and making sure we are doing what is best for the child,” Moore said. “We expect teachers to do right about what they doing, to be fair and consistent. When they are and have discipline problems, we are strong in supporting teachers.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.