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Scholars program making waves

In a rare instance of win-win, Mississippi businesses from Olive Branch to Ocean Springs are increasingly emphasizing a need for students to become scholars.

Specifically, Mississippi Scholars, that is.

The Mississippi Scholars Program is a rewards and recognition system designed to provide high school students who elect to participate within guidelines that will help them enter the workforce or enroll in college with greater success. Sponsors of the program include AT&T, BancorpSouth, Entergy, Mississippi Power and Sanderson Farms.

Administered under the auspices of the Mississippi Economic Council, the program was introduced in 2003 with pilot programs in Hattiesburg and Indianola. Since then, more than 14,000 state high school students have graduated with the Mississippi Scholars Program distinction.

The importance of Mississippi Scholars to economic development can be measured in dollars and cents, says Vickie Powell, vice president of foundation programs for the Mississippi Economic Council.

“By engaging Mississippi businesses with our students, we’re helping them mold future workforces in our state,” said Powell. “The program helps contribute to a stable and viable economy, and provides great opportunities for the students.”

Over 110 high schools in 76 Mississippi school districts have adopted the challenging initiative, which is specifically configured to offer young people the foundation to succeed at any level, whether they choose a technical school, college, the military or go to work after high school graduation.

Success stories are numerous, says Powell. Students who complete the program receive the Mississippi Scholars medallion, one of the rewards for their hard work.

“One particular young man that I remember well realized he was getting off track with the program but his motivation was receiving one of those medallions,” she said. “He added a course in place of study hall and not only received his award but won a college scholarship. The Scholars program has that kind of impact on students.”

During their four years of high school, program participants must complete four credits each for English, mathematics, science and social studies, plus an arts credit and two advanced electives in foreign language.

Additional expectations include 20 hours of community or volunteer service; 2.5 cumulative GPA; 95 percent school attendance during the four-year period; a letter of recommendation; and, no school suspensions.

Powell says the program differs depending on the school district.

“No one size fits all – what works one place may or may not work elsewhere,” she said.

The path to success for Mississippi Scholars, believes Powell, is mapped by the involvement of community business leaders. She cites the Brookhaven-Lincoln County school districts as the model program in the state.

“They are an example for other districts to show that pooling community support can drive change in a local school district,” said Powell. “Both the city and county schools are truly trailblazers in the program.”

Becky Montgomery, a community affairs manager with Mississippi Power, believes there is a distinct correlation between economic prosperity in Mississippi and quality education.

“One of the primary objectives of the program is the enhancement of a highly skilled and well educated workforce for meeting labor needs and stimulating the economy,” she said. “One way this is achieved is through interaction between students and business leaders.”

Powell agrees.

“When the business people that partner with us visit classrooms to talk with students, they bring home for students the value of a strong education in a real-world, bottom-line way,” Powell said. “That is a message all students need to hear.”

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