For years, Jackson Public Schools have played the role of punching bag in public opinion, with tales of falling test scores, poor attendance and hallway violence playing a factor in many parents' flight to the suburbs. Many of the impromptu assessments remain unfounded, however, with some of the district's poorest neighborhoods sporting Level 5 Schools—such as George Elementary—and with numerous JPS teachers and students landing merit awards and national recognition.
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton was not above falling for the hype, however, declaring last year that, "there are 32,000 students in the school system, and 10,000 are not going to school. That's just unacceptable to me." He even went so far as to say he would be personally rounding up truant students on Jatran buses and forcing them back into school.
School officials like Jackson School Board Vice President Jonathan Larkin later produced statistics revealing that the district's average daily attendance is more than 90 percent and improving steadily over the last five years.
Recently, Murrah High School glued another jewel in the JPS crown when it made Newsweek's Best High School List.
In its May 8, 2006 issue, Newsweek Magazine recognized 1,000 U.S. schools that do a superior job of preparing students for college, based on the percentage of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by graduating seniors. Murrah placed just under the top half of the list at No. 503.
In 2006, Murrah High School was also the Mississippi winner of the Siemens Advanced Placement (AP) Award, recognizing the schools that are leading the nation in AP participation and performance in science, math and technology, and Murrah Students won the AP Economics Division in the Mississippi Economics Challenge.
Also, last October, eight Murrah High School students were named National Merit Semifinalists or National Achievement Semifinalists based on their performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. Four of these students went on to place as finalists based on their qualifying SAT scores and recommendations.
Individual students are making their own headlines, with Murrah senior Antoinette Dawson stomping out even the local academy kids and 1,400 other students from across the globe at the May 12 International Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis, Ind. Students also won awards in the AP Economics Division in the Mississippi Economics Challenge, with Marcus Yoder earning a perfect score on the macroeconomics test.
Of only 19 National Achievement Semifinalists statewide, six were from Murrah. One student, Spencer Bowley, achieved a perfect 36 score on his ACT test.
"The teachers at Murrah and the principal (Roy Brookshire) work tirelessly to keep the school on the top, and the results are fairly apparent," Murrah parent Nancy Stevens said. "I've never had a hard time communicating with them, and you can tell they care."
Colleges are noticing the growing stream of top-tier students graduating this year, Stevens said, with 2006 seniors heading off to places like Yale, Duke, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and many other prestigious national colleges and universities.
Murrah also dashes the popular argument that poor grades are directly linked to low income levels; more than 50 percent of its students are on the free or reduced lunch program.
Jaye Espy, educational manager with the State College Board, said the school has the advantage of a "springboard component" that prepares junior-high students for the kind of AP courses Murrah offers.
"JPS has a program called 'springboard' to prepare their students for pre-AP courses. … They're looking toward the future to make sure their middle-school kids are prepared for high school courses," Espy said. "That ('springboard' program) is going to be extended. Other high schools are following the curve, such as Lanier, Forest and Calloway, whose numbers have increased over the last few years. This is not happening in other districts. This is a phenomenon in Jackson."
Susan Womack, executive director of Jackson's Parents for Public Schools, said there was more to Murrah's success than siphoning high-achieving students from other schools.
"They have the APAC (Academic and Performing Arts Complex) program at Murrah, but there's the International Baccalaureate program at Jim Hill, and they have a lot of very smart students, too. Frankly, I think the other high schools are responding to the district's push for increasing advanced placement courses," Womack said. "Forest Hill High School has really increased its AP subjects and the number of students placed in those courses dramatically in the last year or so. I think that Murrah was already in a place to be among those high schools that Newsweek recognized, but I think in the next few years, you're going to see other high schools in Jackson in that same position as the district fulfills its commitment."
Congrats, Murrah! You show what happens when focus and determination pay off. It also gives the impression your students really care about accomplishment.
I only have one quibble about this article, and a merely pedantic one at that:
Recently, Murrah High School glued another jewel in the JPS crown when it made Newsweek’s Best High School List.
Actually, Murrah glued that jewel in the crown before Newsweek was aware of it. It would still be there regardless of whether Newsweek spotted that jewel and told the world about it.
Congratulations to my alma mater! As a 1999 graduate, I am elated to see Murrah continue to shine.
- Will Jemison
Hey Will, great to hear from you! What are you up to now?
Murrah's always had more than it's share of AP Aces/National Merit Finalists/Whatever. I graduated in 88, and it had more than six then.