February 28, 2018 10:17:19 AM
Thirty years ago, the Mississippi Legislature, in a rare spasm of visionary leadership, created the Mississippi School for Mathematics & Science on the campus of Mississippi University for Women.
MSMS was something new in education in the state - a state-funded, residential high school attracting 11th and 12th grade students from across the state.
Over the past three decades, MSMS has proven to be a source of pride for the state and, to some degree, a model for public education. It is regularly rated as the state's best high school and among the best in the nation. This year, MSMS was rated the nation's eighth-best public high school by Business Insider.
The students go through a competitive application process. Right now, the school is evaluating more than 300 applications for the roughly 200 positions available for next year's junior class.
There is no doubt that MSMS has many advantages over the state's other high schools.
First, the school is a residential school, which means staff has access to students 24/7. The students who attend are highly-motivated and presumably supported by their parents. MSMS teachers are better-paid, more experienced and more closely connected to their students.
Given those differences, it would be easy to assume that MSMS is an anomaly, that the success it enjoys cannot be replicated elsewhere because of those advantages.
One person who does not believe that is Dr. Germain McConnell, the MSMS executive director.
"There is an idea that we get all of the gifted students in the state," McConnell said. "That's not true. This year, 18 percent of our students had a 30 on their ACT when they arrived here and some students who came with a 21. So it's not as though we are only taking the best of the best. Like all schools, we have a range of students."
What is notable is that while only 18 percent of MSMS students arrive with a 30 on their ACTs, 67 percent leave with a 30 or higher score two years later.
MSMS' success isn't built solely on the caliber of student as much as what the students learn once they arrive.
For all its advantages, McConnell believes that kind of success should not be exclusive to MSMS.
"We're not really doing anything new, not in a fundamental sense," McConnell said. "What we do is based on research that's been around for a long time."
McConnell refers to research that lists the seven things all successful schools have in common and they are so deeply ingrained in the MSMS ethos, McConnell can rattle them off without the slightest hesitation.
"I really believe that every single one of these can be achieved at any school," McConnell said. "Our situation is unique, of course, and we do have certain advantages that help us better achieve these goals. But I am convinced that every school can achieve these goal. It may not look exactly as it does at our school, but I really believe these are principles every school can follow. It's really a matter of leadership and commitment.
"We're proud of what our students have achieved and continue to achieve," he said. "But we also want to see all of the other schools achieve, too. That's why we are dedicated to sharing what we've learned, what has been successful, with other schools and teachers."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]