The importance of a high-quality public education system and a trained workforce is increasingly at the forefront of economic development in Mississippi as areas of the state attract world class companies. State Superintendent of Education Dr. Hank Bounds plans to bring all parts of the state into the global marketplace with his education reform agenda.
He says Mississippi businesses and industries have been very receptive to the High School Redesign process, seeing it as an opportunity to be involved in helping shape the programs and educational process that will produce the next generation of state workers.
“They have been open about their employment needs, what skills students today need to possess. The state’s business and industry contingent have repeatedly said that all students need a strong academic background, technical proficiency, soft skills/work ethic and some hands-on experience depending on the job requirements,” he said. “At that point, businesses believe they can train the students in the specific requirements of that occupation. These are the minimum requirements to be successful in today’s global economy.”
Currently, 14 school districts across the state are piloting the seventh- and ninth-grade curricula of the Redesign effort, Bounds said. The seventh-grade curriculum introduces career exploration, expands researching and writing skills and focuses on technical literacy. The ninth-grade curriculum focuses on problem solving and applied math and science. These districts will expand the pilot to phase two in the next school year, which will include implementing the eighth-grade and high school curricula.
“In the next week, we will issue proposals for the next group of districts to apply to begin the Redesign process in their areas,” the superintendent said. “Depending on the amount of funding we receive from the State Legislature, we hope to add another 30 to 35 school districts.”
Bounds is committed to the new program because studies conducted by economic development researchers indicate that one of the major factors in an industry deciding to locate in an area is the quality of education provided by that area. That’s a two-part factor, he feels, in that industries need adaptable workers who can help the business succeed, and employees moving into that area want a quality education for their children.
“Our goal is to prepare every student to complete a program of study that prepares them, once they leave high school, for further education or to compete in the economy as a highly-skilled member of the workforce,” he said. “We want our students to be lifelong learners who can continue to adapt and learn as business cycles and technology drives change at a faster and faster pace.”
By continuing to raise the bar through the Redesign program, Bounds said Mississippi students will perform at a level that will attract industry to the state.
The counties of Pontotoc, Union and Lee in Northeast Mississippi have seen their investments in education pay off with a thriving furniture manufacturing sector and by attracting new industry, the latest being auto maker Toyota.
Although he’s just recently come on board as executive director of the Union County Development Association, Stephen Surles spent four years in nearby Monroe County and acknowledges the role of education in attracting industry.
“It affects it from many angles, but the major two are quality of life and the ability to make money through a productive, trained workforce,” he said. “Without a strong public school pre-kindergarten through college, you don’t have much chance of being successful. If you don’t have it, someone else does.”
Surles pointed out that there are more than 15,000 economic development organizations in the country, giving industries a lot of choices.
“That’s an easy way to eliminate a site,” he said. “We’re blessed to have a great educational system here in Northeast Mississippi. We have options.”
In Lee County, Todd Beadles is director of workforce development for the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation. “It is absolutely vital today that school systems look at different pathways,” he said. “Everyone is not going to college — look at the dropout rate — and there are still a lot of gaps left even with vo/tech training.”
He said the school system played a huge role in bringing Toyota to the area. “We want to prepare students to work at places like Toyota,” he said. “They told us the top range for production employees is $20 per hour. Based on regional manufacturing wages, skilled positions usually start 15% to 25% higher. That’s the side that will make a huge improvement from the high school level.
“If we can bridge that gap, then we will have created a whole new pathway of employment for people, and it will be a family supporting wage.”
Toyota has asked local school districts in the region to consider new technical programs that Beadles says look promising.
The Community Development Foundation works with schools as part of the package to sell the community. “We’re doing it through a hospitality program and bring in others to help us give tours of the schools,” Beadles said. “It has made a huge difference, especially for a trailing spouse who may be hesitant to move here.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.