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States seek to Scholars program

The runaway success of Lincoln County’s Mississippi Scholarsprogram has drawn attention from the other side of the country, andsoon Americans living in the Rocky Mountain region will have achance to read and study the local model.

Mississippi Scholars Chairman Kenny Goza said the WesternInterstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), a regionalgroup of 15 states ranging from Alaska to New Mexico that cooperateto improve access to education, plans to publish a study on thelocal program and its rapid four-year expansion.

Although Lincoln County’s program is just one part of thenationwide State Scholars Initiative, few places have seen suchacademic and monetary success as enjoyed locally, Goza said. As aresult, he said WICHE wants to emulate the county’s story of howtwo rural school districts and a private school in a poor statemanaged to go over the top in 2009 with 202 high school scholars -42 percent of all seniors in the county – and $92,000 inscholarship funds.

“We’ve been identified as the best community program in 24states,” Goza said. “It’s a reflection on who we are as acommunity. When you think about the perception that Mississippi hasfrom a national viewpoint, it’s a pretty good thing. We’re excitedabout the recognition.”

Kay Burton, program director for the Brookhaven-Lincoln CountyChamber of Commerce, said the key to Mississippi Scholars’ successis the cooperation between the education system and the localbusiness community.

“It’s not just an educational program, not just a chamberprogram and not just a business community project,” she said. “Ittakes all three of those pulling together, and I think that’s thereal story.”

Mississippi Scholars, which encourages high school students totake on a more rigorous, advanced curriculum to prepare forcollege, began in 2006 with only 26 participants and $8,000 inscholarships. But the program grew as local businesses stepped uptheir donations and exploded last year as 10 state colleges senttheir own financial backing.

Publicizing the program’s success is always a good thing, butBurton expects the positive impact of the westward-bound news tospread to local economic development efforts. She said thespreading news of Mississippi Scholars is something local and statedevelopers would tout to prospective industries and businessespondering an expansion to Lincoln County.

“It is definitely something other communities want to have,”Burton said. “It took a group of people who were committed and acommunity that was supportive, and the success is just the resultof the right people doing the right thing.”

With WICHE’s member states preparing to dissect the program andapply the same methods in their own communities, local MississippiScholars officials are already working to make the magic happenagain in 2010. Fundraising chairman David Culpepper said twoadditional state colleges – Delta State University and theUniversity of Southern Miss – are being recruited to support theprogram, and so far the response has been positive.

“We are encouraging them to contact the other schools involvedand see what kind of students they’re getting,” he said. “They’llsee this as a small investment in recruiting this area.”

With the economy still struggling to come out of its historicslump, Culpepper said Mississippi Scholars would seek to maintainlast year’s $92,000 funding level for 2010 from the colleges andeight local businesses. The maintenance will likely mean that anumber of participating students will be left without scholarshipsat year’s end, the program’s only real dilemma and one organizersconstantly work to improve.

At the Mississippi Scholars Banquet earlier this year, 60 of the202 seniors – approximately 30 percent – were rewarded for theiracademic work with scholarships. Culpepper said it would take moredonations from businesses and private citizens to spread thefunding out to more students, a donation that will pay off for thecommunity in the future.

“The hope and goal of this program is to prepare our students togo off to college and become better educated so that a percentageof them will come back to Brookhaven and Lincoln County and eitheropen or manage a business,” he said. “When they come back, they’llknow someone cared about the community, and they will step up andgive back, too. This is about making Brookhaven and Lincoln Countya better place to live, bottom line.”