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Advocates have similar mission, different approaches

The number of public education special interest and advocacy organizations continues to grow in Mississippi. All of these groups share the belief that strong public schools are essential to a robust economy, that the state’s schools are the primary vehicle to deliver higher-paying jobs and increased quality of life for Mississippians.

While their mission is the same, these special interest/advocacy groups are not. Some are relatively new, others decades old. Some are local and more grassroots, others are chapters of larger, national initiatives, while one began local and has grown into a national organization.

And, these organizations have adopted different approaches and strategies to advance their cause.

Mississippi Association of Partners in Education

The Mississippi Association for Partners in Education (MAPIE) was formed in 1984, and has since grown to more than 40 communities across the state and supports more than 150,000 children.

As its name implies, the group, which was designated a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1994, looks to bring together business and professional people, civic/religious leaders, parents and volunteers and teachers and counselors to help build local support for the success of all students.

The MAPIE offers a number of services to meet its mission. These include networking through membership and regional meetings; training through the organization’s seminars, “Partnership Basics” and site-based consulting; materials such as newsletters, program guidelines, forms and best practices; and, awards and recognition through the Governor’s Awards Luncheon for Outstanding Community Partnerships.

Which services have proved most successful? Linda Ross Aldy, program coordinator at MAPIE, said there is no one service that has proven more popular or successful than the others. It simply depends on the particular community’s needs.

“For instance, some districts may only come to our statewide conference and get their juices going and get ideas they can carry back with them,” she said. “Others might need our ‘Partnerships Basic’ training, which we offer every other year. Others may have partnerships in place, but need them to be more active. It just depends on what the need is.”

Aldy gave a lion’s share of the credit of the organization’s success to the board. Made up of business, community and education leaders, Aldy said she had never worked with a board that was so essential to an organization’s success.

She also pointed out that without the support of the business community, the MAPIE would struggle.

“Without active participation of the business community, there is a big hole,” she said. “Without business, these best practices that we have identified would simply not be possible.”

For more information on MAPIE, visit http://www.mapie.org/.

Parents for Public Schools

In 1989, a group of 20 parents gathered in Jackson to discuss how to support local public schools. The consensus was that the best way to accomplish this was by enrolling their children in public schools and committing to improving their schools side-by-side with other parents. In short, these original members were concerned about “white flight” from the state’s public schools.

Recruiting members one-by-one through information sessions held in homes, Parents for Public Schools (PPS) created a racial balance in four targeted primary schools in Northeast Jackson, followed by the passage of the first bond issue since desegregation.

These efforts drew national media attention, and PPS began fielding inquiries about its efforts from groups and individuals outside Mississippi. In 1991, PPS incorporated as a national organization. Today, it has a presence in 12 states across the U.S. comprised of approximately 25 chapters.

Susan Womack, executive director of the local PPS chapter, said she hears all the time, ‘You’re headquartered in Jackson? Really?”

“I think the reason PPS has been successful and spread to other states is because it was formed by parents,” said Womack, a native of Kosciusko and a product of the local public school system. “PPS brings the unique, outside perspective of parents.

“Another reason for our success is we’re concerned about the public school system as a whole. It’s not just about one of two schools, but the entire system.”

Womack said PPS continues to field inquiries from other states from groups and individuals wanting to form new chapters. She said while PPS welcomes the interest and is looking to expand, the organization is currently in transition as it looks to strengthen the work of the chapters already in place. For more information on PPS, visit http://www.parents4publicschools.com/.

Mississippi Economic Council

The Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) is the state chamber of commerce, and touts itself as the voice of business and industry in Mississippi. While the MEC is familiar to most, others may not know that the organization has long-standing, active education-focused efforts.

These efforts spring from the MEC’s M.B. Swayze Educational Foundation, which, as its name implies, is dedicated exclusively to promote education. Perhaps the foundation’s best-known offering is Leadership Mississippi, a statewide leadership development program.

However, its oldest program is STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Recognition). STAR rewards outstanding student achievement as well as exemplary educators. Students are awarded scholarships, provided by the Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Charitable Foundation, ranging from $500 to $24,000, and teachers are inducted into the STAR Hall of Fame. Going into its 41st year, nearly 20,000 students and teachers have been honored over its history.

The MEC does not just focus on top scholars. It also offers a program that looks to boost the average student called the Mississippi Scholars Program.

“The Mississippi Scholars Program targets students in grades eight through 12, and, working through business leaders and volunteers, encourages these students to take a more vigorous curriculum,” said Cynthia McMillan, vice president of foundation programs at the MEC. “These are not the top students, but rather the middle 50%. The program looks to reach out to this group and encourages the students to step their education up a notch.”

For more information on the MEC’s educational programs, visit http://www.msmec.com/.

The Parents’ Campaign

The “newest kid” in public education advocacy is The Parents’ Campaign. The Parents’ Campaign, founded by executive director Nancy Loome, incorporated in March 2006 and officially launched in June.

The organization has taken a different tack to support public schools. Its focus is on education-related legislation and keeping parents abreast of what lawmakers are doing in Jackson that can affect their children.

“People across the state are frustrated that Mississippi continually ranks near the bottom in education,” Loome said. “Our legislators obviously have a huge affect on public education in Mississippi. They provide funding and write laws that have an impact on our schools. If schools don’t have funds, if teachers aren’t paid well, we’re just whistling in the wind.”

Loome is a veteran of education advocacy after having worked at another organization previously. She also has experience in developing e-mail databases.

This should come in handy with The Parents’ Campaign. The organization’s goal is to have 50,000 network members by the beginning of the 2007 legislative session, members who will be updated on education-related bills. Loome said her organization would utilize volunteers, local business leaders and chambers of commerce to attract enrollees.

In addition, The Parents’ Campaign will offer an interactive Web site, workshops and materials — including legislators’ voting records.

“Nothing gets a legislator’s attention like calls from constituents,” said Claiborne Barksdale, chairman of The Parents’ Campaign. “We are going to give thousands of public school supporters the real-time information they need in order to be heard by their legislators.”

For more information on The Parents’ Campaign, visit http://www.msparentscampaign.org/.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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