Thursday, December 15, 2011
‘State of County’ meeting focuses on ‘coming together’
By BARRY BURLESON
It’s time to unite for a better Marshall County, particularly when it comes to educational attainment.
That was the overriding message that came from a recent “State of the County” discussion led by representatives of the CREATE Foundation.
Mike Clayborne and Lewis Whitfield, from the Tupelo-based community foundation that covers 16 counties, presented information on where Marshall County stands now and asked for input from a small number of community leaders in attendance concerning what comes next.
CREATE’s Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, which publishes a State of the Region report annually, “provides a vehicle for people to come together and talk about issues,” Clayborne said.
“Where the rubber meets the road is in our local communities, and we said we need to get out and share information with our counties,” he said. “We want to be partners — help you look at issues and assist as we can in strategies to move forward.”
Whitfield presented data comparing Marshall County to the region and the state.
In summary, he said, Marshall County has had good population growth, but low income levels, loss of manufacturing jobs, a high poverty rate and low educational attainment.
The county’s population growth is 6.3 percent, compared to 4.3 percent in Mississippi. Its per capita income is $25,423, compared to $30,041 statewide. Its median household income is $33,308, compared to $36,764 in the state. Manufacturing jobs in the county have fallen from 27 percent to 6.7 percent the past 20 years, but total employment in 2009 was up by 1,500 from 1980. Marshall county’s poverty rate is 24.3 percent, compared to 21.3 in northeast Mississippi and 14.3 percent in the United States.
As for educational attainment, 7.5 percent of Marshall Countians have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 12.4 percent of Mississippians. Also, 11.6 percent of Marshall Countians have less than a ninth grade education, compared to 6.4 percent of U.S. residents.
“Almost a third of the adult population in Marshall County has not finished high school,” Whitfield said.
Dropout rates are improving, but still high.
David Beckley, president of Rust College, said the state “needs to get a better handle on what’s happening to those kids.”
He said some are going to private schools, some home-schooling and others going out of state.
“They are working to refine it,” Whitfield said.
The CREATE representative said a lot of economic problems in the South can be attributed to education problems.
Some suggestions included dropout prevention summits, a dropout recovery program, university partnerships and joining the Tuition Guarantee Program.
Every county except Marshall, in CREATE’s 16-county region, is participating in the community college Tuition Guarantee Program.
Under the program, private donors, foundations, development districts and county boards of supervisors combine to pay the cost of four semesters of community college tuition beyond what is covered by scholarships, grants, financial aid and other sources. It must be OK’d by each county’s board of supervisors.
Beckley said the estimated cost would be less than $90,000 a year if the county had to pay 100 percent, “which is highly unlikely.”
“It would be more like $20,000,” he said.
State Rep. Bill Stone agreed.
“In most cases, the actual cost is way lower,” Stone said.
Clayborne said the whole issue is being able to tell high school graduates “your tuition is paid for.”
“So many times there is a history in the family of not going to college and the kids don’t think they can afford it,” Clayborne said. “This says, ‘you can go.’ That’s a powerful message.”
The discussion also moved toward early childhood education and support at home.
“That’s your key — support at home,” said Andy McMillon, president of the Holly Springs Main Street Association. “It’s not a money issue.”
Whitfield said, “Some way we have to figure out how to break the cycle.”
He said early education is one answer because 80 percent of brain development comes in the first four years of life.
The success of Head Start was mentioned, but it only serves 15 to 20 percent of the children.
“Mississippi recognizes it’s a statewide problem,” Beckley said. “Head Start can’t serve all the 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.”
Alan Stanford, a Rust College graduate who recently moved his family back to Holly Springs, said, “We have to get parents more involved.”
Whitfield said education attainment is a community issue, not just a school issue, and you have to have educational achievement to attract developers.”
He said Marshall Countians and others in northeast Mississippi must put race aside and work on these problems.
“The perception is that we’re totally fragmented, that we can’t work together,” Whitfield said. “Counties and cities, blacks and whites, we have to get away from the fragmented picture that we present to people on the outside.”
Charles Terry, who will be sworn in in January as a new member of the board of supervisors, said Marshall Countians must work together for a common cause.
“We need more sitting down together — coming together,” he said.
Whitfield used the example of the PUL (Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties) Alliance that landed the new Toyota plant in Blue Springs.
“So much of this is just relationships,” he said.
He then praised the Marshall County Industrial Development Authority for the development at Chickasaw Trail and its tremendous potential. IDA has worked with neighbors in Tennessee on the project.
“That’s an outstanding example of working together,” Whitfield said. “Now think about that on a larger scale.”
Clayborne suggested a steering committee be put together in the county to involve a greater number of people in the process of tackling issues.
“All levels of education must come together,” said Beckley, from early childhood education, to high schools, to the college level.
Focus areas, the group decided, need to be county unity, early childhood education, job opportunities and cooperation among all education providers.
Clayborne referred to words of George McLean, the late owner and publisher of the Daily Journal based in Tupelo, “There’s nobody else who is going to come in here and do it for us.”
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