Forum gives Mississippi voice on education policy


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Starting early and providing after school care are among the issues education advocates in Mississippi would like to see addressed by President Barak Obama’s administration.

Those goals were made clear Aug. 28 when about 30 people gathered at the Mississippi Conference headquarters to share their thoughts with Michael Robbins, who works in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.

“This was a really important chance to hear directly from communities about where government should go with education policy,” said Robbins. “Faith-based organizations and secular organizations in many ways provide indirect support to schools. We have to figure out how to support these groups where what they are doing is working.”

The gathering was sponsored by the Mississippi United Methodist Women and preceded its annual Legislative Event held the next day. Robbins was among the speakers at that event, too.

Erie Stuckett of Greenville, social action coordinator for the UMW, said she thinks the forum could “allow the kind of networking that will bring big change to education in Mississippi.”

“The goal of this meeting was to make sure that the voice of Mississippi is heard,” she said.

Robbins told the group that one of the goals of his trip was to have organizations share ideas that are working. Groups taking part ranged from the Mississippi PTA to Boys and Girls Clubs of Mississippi. Representatives from some state organizations were also present.

The Rev. Vickie White, superintendent of the Greenwood District, pointed out that many churches in the Mississippi Delta provide after school care as part of their outreach to their communities. However, in a poor area of the state, funds to operate programs are often hard to find.

“Sometimes the child is caught in the middle. It would be nice if the federal government gave some help to these grassroots organizations,” said Charles Tucker of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

Doug Boone, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, said sometimes private funds can be found to assist innovative school programs. “Small grants are the result of a teacher sitting down and putting together really innovative ideas,” he said.

He cited a program at Luther Branson Elementary School in rural northeast Madison County were a teacher has developed a program using MP3 players to teach children. The teacher was able to partner with area businesses to fund the program.

Robbins echoed the notion of locating small grants. “If we’re going to fund innovation, often in small amounts, funding from the federal government is not the best way, but you can go through foundations,” he said.

Delores Irving of the Mississippi PTA said her group is working with suburban PTA groups to develop non-traditional PTAs, which involve church and community groups acting on behalf of students. “We have the ability to get into the schools and get in touch with parents,” she said.

Other parent-teacher groups also attended the meeting, and one point made was that similar groups might need to coordinate efforts rather than duplicate.

“I feel like children in Mississippi are being short changed,” said Theresa King, executive director of the Bethlehem Center in Jackson, a national mission of UMW. “If parents don’t work, they can’t get child care vouchers. We can’t get enough money to cover them.”

Another important effort connected to early childhood education is developing tracking systems to follow the progress of students, Robbins said. “We want to award funds to states that create data systems that track student growth,” he said.

A point was also raised that it would be helpful if after-school programs could access student assessment so they could help students in areas where extra work is needed.

Another key issue for after-school programs is transportation. Larry King of Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Mississippi said the cost of transporting students to after-school programs continues to rise. He said his organization is exploring working with churches to host club after-school programs for their neighborhoods. He said he’s in discussion with a United Methodist church in Jackson to make use of its facilities.