Senators impressed during MSA tour

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, April 19, 2012

Members of the state Senate education committee toured the Mississippi School of the Arts’ campus Wednesday afternoon and left with nothing but praise for the school.

     “Fantastic facilities,” said Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, chairman of the education committee. “The school is doing very well in educating young Mississippians.”

     Approximately eight members of the 15-member committee were present for the campus tour, with most echoing Tollison’s remarks as the tour concluded.

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     “I am very impressed,” said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.

     Following the tour, Tollison said he wants to see MSA maintain the level of state money it received last year.

     “Hopefully we’ll hold the line on funding,” Tollison said.

     The education committee chairman also spoke about the benefits he thinks smaller schools like MSA provide.

     “I think small is better,” Tollison said. “You have a cost factor, but with smaller, you can focus. One size does not fit all.”

     Near the end of the tour, one student specifically praised the school’s small student body.

     “Ms. Hirsch knows my name,” said Madelyn Briggs, a senior literary arts major, of Suzanne Hirsch, the school’s executive director. “The principal at my old school didn’t know anything about me. It was a big school, and I was a face in the crowd.”

     Tollison further discussed a few ways in which MSA can inform the ongoing charter school debate in the Legislature.

     MSA functions similarly to a public charter school, Tollison said. He cited the ability of charter schools to, like MSA, specialize or adopt a narrow focus as one of their benefits, whether that focus be on certain subjects, such as art or science, or on certain students groups, like at-risk students or gifted students.

     During the tour, Tollison talked to some MSA students, asking them if they feel more challenged at MSA than they did at their local schools, with the students he talked to telling him they do.

     Brookhaven’s District 39 Sen. Sally Doty, a Republican, arranged the tour. She’s not a member of the education committee but knew only two members of the education committee had seen the school before. Doty thought it important for the Senate education leaders to see MSA for themselves.

     “So often in the Legislature we are dealing with items we don’t have enough information about,” Doty said. “There was no legislation dealing with the arts school this year, but there might be in the future. If this comes up again, I want them to know what we have here in Brookhaven.”

     Doty said the tour and the senators’ interaction with students seemed to produce distinctly positive results.

     “They all left so impressed, saying this is something our state can be so proud of,” Doty said.

     None of the senators on Wednesday’s tour had ever seen the school before, Doty said.

     Student tour guides highlighted MSA’s central location in Brookhaven, with a grocery store, library, post office and several churches all within easy walking distance.

     MSA principal Jana Perry praised the partnership between Brookhaven and the school.

     “The community has always been more than willing to help us out,” Perry said.

     Following the tour, Doty took the senators on a brief visit to downtown Brookhaven and then to her home for dinner, where members of the MSA choir performed.

     Members of the MSA choir have performed at the Capitol before, but Doty hopes to arrange in the future a display of work by visual arts students.

     Doty hopes the senators’ interaction with students left the strongest impression. One student tour guide, performing arts senior Jalen Gilbert, performed a monologue from William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” for the group.

     Afterward, Gilbert thanked the senators for their role in the school.

     I’m really grateful,” Gilbert said. “This school has really prepared me.”