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Ed officials’ message: Education is key

The “joint chiefs” of state education visited McComb onWednesday to promote public understanding of their goals for thestate’s students.

The visit part of a state tour by Dr. Henry Johnson, statesuperintendent of education; Dr. Wayne Stonecypher, executivedirector of the state Board for Community and Junior Colleges; andDr. David Potter, commissioner of the Institutions of HigherLearning. The men spoke during a meeting of the McComb RotaryClub.

The three agency leaders together represent state education fromkindergarten through graduate school.

“We’re traveling together because we believe Mississippi musthave a unified educational system,” Potter said.

Potter cited the close working relationship between the threeleaders as a positive step in education for the state because itsignified a joint effort to graduate students, regardless of gradelevel, that would have an immediate impact in the state’s workforce.

Johnson agreed, adding that the tour marked the first time instate history that the three chiefs have traveled together to”express the message that education is the key from K through gradschool.”

All three men concentrated on education as the key element inimproving Mississippi’s economy and quality of life.

Potter said changes in the economy and society have made itharder for people to find their place. A significant factor inthose changes, he said, is that unskilled jobs have been moving outof the nation as the marketplace becomes more technologicallyadvanced.

In 2000, Potter said, 85 percent of jobs in the state requireskilled workers.

“That percentage has been rising steadily in the years since,”he said.

Stonecypher agreed during his comments later.

“We’ve lost our low skill jobs. They’re gone. They’re inMexico,” he said.

Education from kindergarten to high school seniors is thebackbone of the system, Stonecypher said, and junior colleges “cannot solve all the problems in Mississippi. We can not get it donewithout the foundation students get in K-12.”

Johnson expanded on Stonecypher’s comments later when he saidthe demands of the work force have greatly changed in the past twoto three decades. Entry-level jobs then really did not require mucheducation on the part of the student, he said, and now they demandemployees who can read and write well, solve problems, and learn atan accelerated pace.

“Twenty-five years ago, those were the goals for students inhigher education,” Johnson said. “Our job in the public schoolarena is to be responsive to those requirements and to the parentswho want … a rigorous academic experience for their children.We’re already making some really good progress. We know what to doand how to do it.”

Stonecypher said their efforts, however, are hampered when theeducation budget provided by the state gets cut every year.

Johnson agreed.

“If we continue to underfund, it will jeopardize the progresswe’ve made,” he said.

Further complicating the issue, Johnson said, is that the stateis slipping in providing teachers.

“We lose more teachers through retirement and other means thanwe produce,” he said. “It’s a problem. It’s a tough issue. Salaryis important for teachers to join and stay in the work force, butit isn’t the only issue.”

Working conditions, recognition of achievements and rewards,financial and otherwise, for success in meeting strict federal andstate accountability rules are other factors, he said.

To offset the problem, Johnson said the state needs to increaserecruiting efforts, increase the base salary and add rewards forstudent performance.

Stonecypher added that attention has been focused on teachers inK-12 during the past few years, but junior college teachers alsohave a stake in those issues.

Although the board supports teacher pay raises, he said, itshould be noted that should K-12 teachers receive their 8 percentpay raise next year, they will be higher paid than communitycollege teachers.

“And where do we recruit our teachers from? The K-12 system. Youcan see the problem we’re facing,” he said.