When Dr. Hank Bounds took the reins as state superintendent of education three years ago, he set a goal of changing public education in Mississippi. The former superintendent of the Pascagoula School District wasted no time making the state system more in tune with a technology-driven global economy.
At age 41, he says the position is the most difficult challenge of his life, but also the most rewarding. “As a lifelong resident and one who loves the state, I want to see us move forward,” he said. “We have opportunities to move forward, and I’m trying to instill a sense of urgency.”
Bounds is pleased with the way things are going across the state, and says it’s an honor to work with the talented and dedicated teachers and superintendents.
The only negative is having less connection with students; that’s something he misses. But he listens to students at every opportunity and established a student advisory board.
“Students are in a position to help us understand what school is like,” he said. “If you’re not a student in 2008, you don’t know what it’s like to be in school now. We can’t teach the same way we did years ago. Students now are so comfortable with technology.”
Last week, the Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Bounds for an update of his plans and progress for public education.
Mississippi Business Journal: How are your plans progressing to change public education in Mississippi?
Hank Bounds: I’m delighted to report we are making incredible progress including re-designing a curriculum based on national standards, a rebuilt assessment system and the way leaders and teachers are trained. We’ve built the Mississippi Center for Innovation through a Kellogg Foundation grant that supports the board’s goals for education.
We have a robust virtual school program that’s bursting at the seams. It makes education a level playing field for students living in rural areas, making more courses available to them. Geography shouldn’t dictate opportunities for students.
Unbelievable progress is being made on keeping children in school with the “On the Bus” campaign. We’re now moving from an awareness campaign to schools and communities focusing on programs to make it work.
MBJ: What are the biggest challenges facing public education in the state?
HB: We still have a cultural issue of generational poverty in this state. Some parents don’t know what good looks like, but most do want the best for their children although they may not know how to help them dream and reach their full potential.
The tide is turning in the business community, and they’re seeing the connection education has with economic development. Good schools are vitally important in a state where more than 90% of children attend public schools. Where communities are engaged in education, schools are better.
MBJ: Are more communities joining the dropout campaign?
HB: Yes. In lots of areas communities are holding their own dropout summits. It’s an issue that’s really rallied community support, and we see superintendents being creative with it.
MBJ: What kind of impact are rising fuel costs and the slowing economy having on education?
HB: I’ve had lots of discussions with superintendents about fuel costs. It’s more than just transporting students on buses. Fuel costs drive everything else. Schools are huge energy users. I see districts re-evaluating everything they do — transportation routes, efficiencies and making sure everything is turned off at the end of the day.
MBJ: What changes are necessary for the states’ graduates to thrive in an information, technology-driven economy?
HB: We’re trying to attack that with re-designed seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade programs that get away from the discover programs that were put in place in the mid-1990s. That’s not what today’s students need. The new programs are helping them learn to use technology to solve problems. We make certain we expose students in such a way that leads to future growth and learning, and it must be done before high school.
MBJ: How viable is the concept of a technical workforce preparation school for the state?
HB: It’s being discussed in a number of places around the state. Some leaders have visited a model school in Florida. The question is how do we meet kids where they are? If we’re serious about our dropout rate, we must make high school meaningful. This kind of school is not necessarily non-college preparatory and it won’t be called vo-tech. It’s not what we’ve thought of in the past.
I’m thrilled with the creativity being shown and with the discussions being held with industrialists and others to meet the needs for future jobs.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.