The state of education in Mississippi is at a crossroads, and educators are voicing their concerns this week at their annual conference, hosted at the University of Mississippi.
During the keynote address Monday at the Mississippi Department of Education conference, Hank Bounds, state superintendent of education, charged the estimated 1,600 teachers and administrators in attendance to think about what they want the state to accomplish in education.
"I am absolutely convinced that Mississippi is limited only by our vision," Bounds said. "If we don't dream for our children, then who will?"
While more than 90 percent of Mississippi's public schools are meeting standards set by the No Child Left Behind initiative, Bounds said the state still needs to improve its 35 percent dropout rate.
The Legislature this year requested the state Department of Education to create a statewide dropout prevention program.
During a special conference session on Tuesday, J. Martez Hill, deputy state superintendent, outlined 15 dropout prevention strategies, including increased family involvement, early childhood education, alternative schooling and community collaboration. Hill said a Dropout Prevention Task Force is being formed to address the statewide epidemic.
"The Dropout Prevention Task Force serves as a sounding board," said Hill. "For this task force to be successful, the entire community must be involved."
In regard to dropout rates, several teachers, principals and administrators voiced concerns, ranging from changing the mind-set of children who feel hopeless to including career training within the state's education curriculum.
"A major jolt to teachers, parents and the community is required to change our educational system," said George Cole, principal of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. "We have to give our kids hope."
An initial advisory group is scheduled to meet in late July to discuss the task force, which will include students, teachers, school administrators, parents, faith-based groups, business leaders and officials from various state agencies. The task force itself is scheduled to hold quarterly meetings beginning in September, Hill said.
A decrease in dropout rates leads to increased graduation rates. Bounds said he's hopeful that the goal of improving graduation rates from 60 percent to 85 percent over the next 10 years can be met.
He said if Mississippi can recover from Hurricane Katrina, which was responsible for $700 million in total damages to the state's public school system, then the Magnolia State should be able to meet the educational needs of its children.
"We stand at a crossroads in Mississippi," Bounds said. "We can either stay at the bottom or we can change the face of the state, but we have to tackle student achievement with equal fervor and success as we did following Katrina."
The three-day conference, normally held on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was forced to relocate this year due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.