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Grants aimed at 12 Mississippi counties in Appalachian foothills

Increasing students going to college

In some of the state’s Appalachian counties, community leaders, education officials and economic developers are forming teams to increase the number of high school graduates who go on to college. Twelve of Mississippi’s 24 counties of the Appalachian Region are encouraged to apply for grants for this effort through the Mississippi Higher Education Initiative.

“It’s easy to forget we’re in the foothills of Appalachia, but people in this part of the state are familiar with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC),” said Initiative coordinator Julie Jordan, who is based in Starkville. “Money flows into the state from the ARC for various projects.”

The Mississippi Higher Education Initiative (MS-HEI) is such a project. It is part of an ongoing program the ARC is funding in other parts of the country with a focus on raising education levels in traditionally higher poverty areas where education levels are lower than the rest of the county.

“We’re learning from the best practices that have been in place in other areas a number of years,” she said. “We visited schools where the percentage of graduates going to college increased in two or three years.”

All counties in the Appalachian Region are identified in four categories: distressed, at risk, transition, or competitive. None of Mississippi’s 24 Appalachian counties are termed competitive.

The 12 counties eligible to apply for the MS-HEI grant are termed distressed. Those 12 counties include Benton, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Clay, Kemper, Marshall, Montgomery, Noxubee, Panola, Webster, Winston and Yalobusha. According to the ARC’s website, distressed means the counties have high unemployment, low per capita income and high rates of poverty.

Regarding the low percentage of high school graduates attending college, Jordan feels a lot of it is mindset. “We forget how rural the state is until we get out and drive around,” she said. “There are students who’ve never been on a college campus. They’re afraid and think college is unattainable. We’re telling them it is attainable.”

With many parents in the region uninformed about helping their children obtain financial aid, Jordan said the MS-HEI will work with schools and communities to help them get ready for college.

Community leaders, elected officials and economic developers are being asked to join the schools to take ownership to sustain the program after the grant time is ended.

“We want to see overall economic development benefits, not just education benefits,” she added. “We’re making it an economic development project because they’re related. We want to foster better community/school relationships.”

That concept is embraced by Choctaw County where economic developer Alan Bates said the community is keenly interested in raising education standards. “We’ve added some educators to our board and want to tie it together,” the executive director of the Choctaw County Economic Development Foundation said.

His county is one of the eligible counties attending a pre-proposal conference at Mississippi State University this week. Their community team will learn more about the program and have assistance developing their proposal to receive the competitive grant. Two visitors from Ohio, where the program has been successful, will speak to the group.

MS-HEI has $50,000 to be awarded during fiscal year 2009-09 for five projects and $100,000 for the following fiscal year for continuation awards and new projects. A community’s annual grant award may not exceed $10,000.

Tricia Gillon, who’s coordinating the Choctaw County team, said, “Any time you can improve the education attainment level, it improves the county. Industries will look differently at us. We’ve lost some of our manufacturing jobs, and they’re being replaced with more high-tech jobs.”

Cynthia Wilson, executive director of the Webster County Development Council, is also attending the conference to learn more about the grants. “We want to increase the number of students going to college. I see it as an economic development tool,” she said. “Two of our industries here have been hit pretty hard with the automotive and housing downturn. They’ve had to scale back.”

Webster County has had a group from the development organization and the schools working together to devise a plan to raise educational levels. She hopes the MS-HEI grant will enable them to become more involved in those efforts.

Jordan says the program is being well received by interested chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and schools. She’s getting positive feedback from those eager to find ways to engage communities in education.

Communities’ proposals for using the grant monies may include student visits to college campuses, business and industrial tours, career fairs, assisting families in filling out financial aid forms and resource materials to help improve students’ college entrance test scores.

“The most important thing is to help parents and students understand the process of applying for college,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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