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Education is the answer

Hold a list of the areas in the state that have the strongest schools next to the lists of the communities in Mississippi with the highest per capita income and the most economic development activity, and the correlation between superior schools and healthy business communities is more than apparent.

The areas of the state with the most bustling economic development activity are the tri-county Madison-Hinds-Rankin region, DeSoto County and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Those areas also boast the largest number of top-ranked schools in the state.

The City of Madison is tops in the Magnolia State in per capita income. And, Madison County is one of the few counties in Mississippi that have double-digit top-performing schools.

Rosie Vassallo, executive director of Madison the City Chamber of Commerce, said, “That is very important (in luring new business and industry). That’s the No. 1 question prospects have, is the schools.”

Jackson County on the Mississippi Gulf Coast ranks near the top in high-performing schools. Jackson County School District, particularly its St. Martin High School in Ocean Springs, has garnered national attention for its students’ achievement.

“It’s a great community, and this is definitely a community effort,” said Dr. Barry Amacker, superintendent of the Jackson County School District, whose motto is “Raising the Standard.”

Amacker said the county’s schools have four overall goals — promotion of core learning, “stretch learning” (pushing students to achieve more than is expected), student engagement and personal skill development.

The last of these focuses on work ethic, teaching students the importance of being on time, over-achieving and generally being prepared to be a productive worker.

“We try hard to listen to the business community so that we know what their needs are,” Amacker said. “In the past, we have pushed kids to go to college. That is fine, but we know some kids are going to go straight to work. Not all of our students are going to college, and we have to make sure they have the skills they need.”

And, Amacker understands that the community’s success in economic development is a plus for his schools. More businesses mean more tax base and more funding for education. More work opportunities also mean his graduates stand a better chance of staying close to home when they enter the workforce, stifling “brain drain.”

“We have a good number of our students who now stick around. We definitely reap the harvest,” he said.

Arguably the two biggest happenings in the state concerning school performance is a new school achievement rating system and the recently signed “failing-school” law. With both of these, the business community plays a large role.

The state is currently in the process of switching to a new school-performance rating system. And, if the new system works as the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) believes it will, it should be well received by the business community, particularly economic developers and those in the site selection industry.

On March 20, the Mississippi Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a new accountability rating system for the state’s schools. State superintendent of education Dr. Hank Bounds says the new rating system represents a quantum leap, and should give a clearer, more accurate picture of schools’ effectiveness.

“This is a major step forward for our state, and will help us reach our goal of reaching the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments by 2013,” said Bounds, who was announced as the preferred candidate for commissioner of higher education June 2. “Parents and communities need to have a way of measuring the quality of their schools against other schools in the county, the state and the country.”

The change was implemented because education leaders saw some major flaws in the old system. Students’ test scores fall into four major categories: minimal; basic; proficient; and, advanced. No Child Left Behind, used to compare schools from state to state, only focuses on “proficient” to determine whether a school is progressing or not. No credit is given for moving students from “minimal” to “basic” or from “proficient” to “advanced.”

The old system ranked schools from Level 1 (low performing) to Level 5 (superior performing). It assessed two points — the percentage of students scoring “basic” and above and the percentage of students scoring “proficient” and above. Again, there was no credit given schools for advancing their students’ test achievement.

The new system utilizes a Quality of Distribution Index (QDI), which is derived by multiplying the percentage of students who score in the “basic” range by one, those in the “proficient” range by two and the percentage in “advanced” by three and then adding them together. (No credit is given for “minimal” achievement.)

QDI will be simple to calculate and represents straight achievement, but it does not show year-to-year improvement. Once schools’ QDI is calculated, the system will remedy this by factoring in improvement, ranking it “inadequate,” “appropriate” or “outstanding.”

Finally, schools’ graduation and completion rates are factored. Thus, schools will only receive top rating if they show high achievement, year-over-year growth and strong population of graduating students.

The numerical levels will be replaced by seven designations — Star School, High Performing, Successful, Academic Watch, Low Performing, At-Risk of Failing and Failing. Schools will receive their new ratings this fall.

“Strong partnerships with local businesses and other community organizations are also essential for school success,” Bounds added.

The second important event occurred last April when Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law the Children First Act of 2009, aimed at increasing accountability standards and strengthening academic achievement for Mississippi’s public schools. It focuses more on schools on the bottom end of the spectrum — the MDE estimates that 10 percent of the state’s 152 school districts fall into this failing category. And, the business community has a significant role.

“The Children First Act allows the state to step into troubled districts relatively early and begin their turnaround,” Barbour said.

The law has a number of provisions. One requires that school districts that are designated “failing” to establish a council that includes representatives from the school as well as the business and local community.

At the signing of the Children First Act, Barbour also announced that Mississippi has received a $150,000 grant from the National Governors Association to craft a plan for improving chronically low-performing schools. Mississippi will be one of four states to develop a national model for improving schools noted as low performing annually. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the grant.

Vassallo agrees with Amacker that strong schools and healthy business communities are related. It takes a team effort.

“It all works together,” Vassallo said. “It’s a cornucopia of good business, good schools and great residents partnering together.”

About Wally Northway

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