Now that Anthony Johnson has unloaded the moving truck and started unpacking from his relocation from Nashville to Jackson, he's ready for his next logistical challenge—as executive director of Alignment Jackson, an organization dedicated to supporting and improving Jackson Public Schools through community engagement and support.
Previously, Johnson worked for Alignment Nashville—the model for the Jackson initiative—and was the lead coach for former Alignment Jackson executive director and co-founder Shawna Davie. Johnson arrives to helm Alignment Jackson just as Davie departs for a year-long fellowship in New York. With the ascension of another high-profile booster, Tony Yarber, to the mayor's office in April, Alignment Jackson could have easily slipped into oblivion.
However, the seamlessness with which Johnson has picked up where Davie left off is at the core of Alignment Jackson's mission, which is to help allow community and corporate partners to support JPS without the students ever missing a beat.
"We can do more. And sometimes it's not money," Johnson said. "It's five more minutes. It's taking an hour a week to go tutor and understanding that stuff has an impact. It is our job and our responsibility to help people define that impact." Johnson emphasized Alignment Jackson is not part of a charter-school movement but a program to help improve JPS. "Charter schools are public schools, and the purpose of Alignment Nashville and Alignment Jackson is to support public schools," he said.
Johnson said the other Alignment sites including Nashville and Rockford, Ill., are not charter-school movements either. "In Rockford I do know their schools were performing well then they looked at charter schools. Then the charter-school experiments didn't work, and then they looked at the Alignment process," Johnson said.
Because of his involvement in the organization, Johnson said his decision to come to Jackson was an easy one to sustain the program's momentum. The drivers of that momentum are Alignment Jackson's business partners, who are working together to improve JPS, he said.
The United Way of the Capital Area, Jackson Chamber of Commerce, Jackson Public Schools and the City of Jackson are Alignment Jackson's partners and major supporters. They have helped in their areas of influence. For example, David Pharr, the education committee chairman for the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber of Commerce connects businesses to Jackson and also recruits sponsors for Alignment Jackson.
"The kids that are coming through the public schools define our quality of life in the future, and business, in particular, has an invested interest in making sure they are prepared to contribute," Pharr said.
Alignment supporters say businesses can reap the benefits of creating the next work force comprised of more qualified workers through increased exposure and applicable education experiences because of Alignment Jackson, but the impact goes beyond economics.
"In some cases, it is deeper than money. It's working with these young people and teaching them what it takes to be successful, what it takes to be professional. It's reframing the conversation and opening up another world to them that they wouldn't otherwise get," Johnson said.
The businesses involved spread their funds and knowledge to help students explore different fields through interactional experiences, especially at the Career Exploration Fair and through the freshman academies. Pharr said the response from business regarding Alignment Jackson has been positive so far.
JPS ninth graders will begin "academies" during the fall. The learning communities will be comprised of students with similar interests in concentrations such as law, business, communication and finance. Businesses can help the academies through donating money, equipment and time including tutoring opportunities.
Alignment Jackson is also involved in literacy initiatives for elementary students during the summer using community resources such as publicity promoting literacy throughout the city, parent workshops that provide instruction for how to teach children to read and how read with children, book donations and community and corporate volunteer hosted family literacy events.
Robert Lesley, public affairs director for Atmos Energy, said it makes good business sense to join with Alignment Jackson because the program will better educate students and improve the school district, which will help attract families to Jackson.
"We want Jackson to succeed. Jackson is our largest customer base in Mississippi, and we want Jackson to progress and to do better in the future," Lesley said. "And the key to doing better in the future is education."
Based in the state's most populous city and the largest urban school district, the effects of Alignment Jackson could ripple throughout Mississippi, which has a chronically underfunded and low-performing public-education system that makes some businesses think twice before investing here.
Q. Talecia Garrett, president of Garrett Enterprises Consolidated Inc., an engineering and consulting firm, believes Alignment Jackson is a good business investment because students because students will pick up skills that are valuable to firms like hers. Alignment Jackson might also curb the brain drain that has long plagued the state's economy—with bright young people leaving.
"(W)e have so many educated people here in the state. However, at the time when they graduate, they'll leave the state for other job opportunities," Garrett said.
She said that Garrett ECI is helping organize Alignment Jackson's Career Exploration Fair, which will be in the fall and expose ninth graders to options for continued education and careers.
Garrett said the fair will be interactive and hands-on, and she hopes this will increase their interest in higher education while giving them a taste of different careers while still in high school. Johnson said the Jackson Convention Complex will host the fair.
Johnson said he thinks collaboration in the community will transform the schools and contribute to student success beyond education.
Helping education is a moral imperative for the greater good, Johnson said. "It's the citizenship piece of 'I'm a good citizen if I don't create a mess. I'm a good citizen if I love my neighbor. You know, make the world that much of a better place for somebody else,'" he said.