GOP Leaders: Invest in Early Education, Reading to Raise Graduation Rates | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

GOP Leaders: Invest in Early Education, Reading to Raise Graduation Rates

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, says preparations for high-school success have to happen as early as possible.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, says preparations for high-school success have to happen as early as possible. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Tackling chronic absenteeism, providing early childhood education and improving third-grade reading would increase graduation rates in Mississippi, the Republican chairman of the Mississippi Senate Education Committee said last night.

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, also cited a link between low third-grade reading proficiency and the high likelihood of dropping out. "You've got to look back and say, 'Where do we go to make the changes that need to happen?'" Tollison said. "And it starts early; it doesn't happen in high school. It doesn't start when they turn 15 or 13; it starts when they're born."

Tollison, a former Democrat, was among the state education stakeholders who met last night at MPB's annual Motivation to Graduation Dropout Prevention Forum to discuss ways to keep Mississippi's children on track to advance through school and graduate. The forum featured presentations from state officials and JPS students, with a panel including the voices of parent representatives and students.

Dropouts are a serious problem in Mississippi with high-school seniors continuing to graduate at a lower rate than the national average of 82 percent. That is true although Mississippi's graduation rate improved drastically from 71.4 percent in the 2011-2012 school year to the current rate of 80.8 percent, and the dropout rate followed suit from 16.7 to 11.8.

That is a problem for those children and for the state as a whole, Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, said last night. "We absolutely have to have more people contribute to the tax base in Mississippi."

MPB honored Tollison for his work in education policy. Tollison has supported charter-school expansion and the consolidation of public-school districts, and has been a strident advocate of third-grade literacy advancement.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann spoke about the importance of timely graduation. "As you know, 71 percent of our children are on free-lunch programs in Mississippi," he said. "When we negate this particular point by not providing them adequate education in Mississippi, we effectively destroy the future of our state. It begins with pre-K. In Mississippi, we have to have pre-K. Without question, it is a precursor to success for so many of our students."

Hosemann acknowledged the state's expansion of early-childhood programs, but called it "too tiny of a step" for ensuring the basic educational skills of all students, whether or not they want to go to college. He also encouraged community members and businesses to get involved. "If we're going to succeed in Mississippi, every child who gets to the third grade should start (preparation) before the first grade," he said. "The work force begins with pre-K."

During the panel discussion, former JPS Superintendent Earl Watkins said it "takes folks at the leadership level and at the grassroots level ... to make sure our students are doing well."

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch praised teachers and spoke about the importance of a financial investment in Mississippi's public-school students, and the importance of equipping them with financial literacy. "My favorite statistic to give is if you invest in a child financially, that child is seven times more likely to go to school. When you get to the third grade, you're halfway to college. It's a little alarming when you stop and think about it," she said.

Jackson Public Schools PTA President Rosaline McCoy said parent involvement was different from parent engagement, and it was important to allow parents to choose what their role was in a changing culture. PTA moms aren't just the typical stay-at-home mom with a lot of time to do stuff during the work day anymore, she said.

"The best way that we define involvement for PTA is showing up," McCoy said. "Participating. Come through the doors, sign the roll. Make sure we at least have your breath in the building, and when I say breath, I don't mean bodies, because we want living people. Engagement means taking all what we do at that meeting and putting our hands on it ... to make that thing grow. There's a difference in doing that and just making sure the seats are filled in the auditorium."

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow at the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Email [email protected].

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