December 1, 2012 11:05:04 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Enrollment is increasing at private academies and charter schools loom large on the horizon, with lawmakers expected to make yet another push for them in January. School districts across the state are falling into conservatorship. Test scores and graduation rates are plummeting, dropout rates are on the rise and state and federal appropriations continue to lag far behind what is needed.
If ever there was a time public education could use a strong advocate, it is now, and Friday night, dozens of the Magnolia State's most passionate crusaders gathered at Mississippi University for Women to kick off a weekend conference dedicated to bolstering public schools and improving the quality of public education.
Approximately 170 people spent the weekend at MUW, attending panel discussions and breakout sessions as part of the first statewide conference of Parents for Public Schools, a national organization dedicated to educating, engaging and mobilizing parents to take action within their communities. The organization was founded in Jackson in 1991, quickly becoming a nationwide movement and establishing chapters in cities across America.
The conference began with a dinner and panel discussion Friday night at MUW's Pope Banquet Room at Hogarth Dining Hall. Guest speakers included local lawyer and Aberdeen municipal judge Scott Colom, Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science Academic Affairs Director Germain McConnell and Julius Rainey Jr., the information technology director for Parents for Public Schools (PPS).
Each of the three delivered 10-minute speeches focusing on the challenges students face and ways to encourage achievement, especially in black males.
Offering examples from their own lives, their stories provided testimony to the role good parents can play in helping children beat what sometimes seems like insurmountable odds to become successful adults.
Colom, a 2001 graduate of Columbus High School and a 2005 graduate of Millsaps College, credited his parents for making education a priority. But even with a strong family unit, he still fell into potentially destructive patterns -- succumbing to peer pressure and, he admitted, laziness.
After two suspensions, one for fighting and another for having a beeper at school, his parents sent him briefly to boarding school. That helped him learn the importance of academics, but the life-changing moment came when his father devised a way to get his basketball-loving son to enjoy reading. He made him read the newspaper's sports page every day and give a synopsis that evening of what he had read.
At the time, Colom thought it was just his father's way of strengthening their bond. Only as an adult did he see that his father had helped him dodge what he feels is a critical component of black males' underachievement -- an inability to read well or enjoy the written word.
If a parent can instill character in children and make education a priority, everything else falls into place, Colom said. But without strong literacy skills, no program will manage to adequately address poor academic performance and low graduation rates.
"As I think about what we can do as a community, I have to think that what we're doing tonight is a start, and that's coming together and talking to parents and realizing, 'What are the problems?'" Colom said.
Dropout prevention programs like Columbus Municipal School District's Project 2020, and improving teachers' ability to "teach to the test," won't be effective without teaching the so-called "soft skills" like self-discipline.
"To me, it doesn't matter how many times you teach to the test if the kid can't read," Colom said, drawing a round of applause. "So to me, we need to figure out, why can't the kid read? What are the distractions that are keeping him from being able to read. A lot of it's stuff we can fix."
Reprimands without explanations are pointless, he said, and parents need to focus on the right things.
"We've got to get the soft skills right, and if we get the soft skills right, everything else will follow," he said. "The grades will follow, the graduation rate will follow, the college attainment rate will follow, the professional skills will follow -- all of it will follow. I believe this, if we get the soft skills right."
McConnell, a 1991 graduate of Northeast Lauderdale High School and the University of Mississippi, said low self-esteem and living in "a white world" are challenges for black males.
Though he was raised in a single-parent household, his mother and grandmothers raised him to believe he was as good as anyone else and could attain his dreams, he said. A strong faith in God helped him through the difficult days at Ole Miss and its troubled racial past.
It's important to encourage children to take advanced classes and to expect the best from them, using faith as the value system that will provide the foundation of their lives, he said.
Originally, he planned to be an electrical engineer, but as he started noticing the racial and socioeconomic inequalities in public education, he felt an increasing call by God to make a positive change.
"It was like this big finger was pointing, 'What about you? I've given you what it takes,'" he said. "So that's my lifelong mission: To do everything within my power to make sure I'm making a difference. And I'm on the path to do my part. I don't know where God is going to take me, but I'm excited about it."
Rainey, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and graduated from Jackson State University with a master's degree in public policy and administration, also credited his mother for the path he chose as an adult.
A learning toy he received when he was seven -- a computerized, talking doll -- led to a fascination with technology, and he has parlayed that into a career.
As a youth, he worried about what his peers thought of him. Fear of ridicule and failure is a big obstacle for black males, he said. But because his mother, a single parent, sacrificed so much for his education, he felt a deep responsibility to make her efforts count.
He encouraged parents to get involved and know their communities, and above all, to remain focused on the end result.
"Don't let people define your future," he said. "When you feel that people are trying to define your future, you take you some invisible headsets or headphones, stuff them in your ear and you run your race because you're determined to win," Rainey said. "If you don't pay any attention to anything but the vision and the goal that's in mind, I promise you, you'll be victorious."
Saturday's PPS sessions included teaching parents how to choose reading material for children, how to build community and public support in rural communities, help students prepare for college and find scholarship money and devise strategies to get children excited about mathematics and other subjects.
The conference was sponsored by MUW's Roger F. Wicker Center for Creative Learning.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.