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By STEVEN NALLEY
Starkville School District integrated the prospect of consolidation with Oktibbeha County School District into its second of four strategic planning meetings Thursday at Hilton Garden Inn while also identifying priorities, goals and values.
Commonly identified priorities and goals included recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, updating technology and facilities, closing achievement gaps, increasing graduation rates, ensuring school safety and security and increasing community support. When identifying values, stakeholders focused on human capital, including relationships, diversity, extracurricular programs, students, faculty and staff.
When discussing consolidation, SSD superintendent Lewis Holloway said he was concerned that state legislators were pursuing consolidation too quickly without weighing key factors.
â€ś(Consolidation) is the right thing to do, (but) it needs to be community-led, and it needs to be well-funded,â€ť Holloway said. â€śIf weâ€™re going to have a mandate that affects our districts, then our districts need to lead that charge.â€ť
Phil Hardwick, coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development, facilitated the meeting, and he asked each of eight groups of stakeholders to express their thoughts on consolidation through brief â€śletters to the editor.â€ť Those statements are compiled in todayâ€™s Forum section, and many of them share Hollowayâ€™s views.
Hardwick also asked stakeholders to identify a goal that would make them proud of SSD three years from now. Mississippi State University Provost Jerry Gilbert said a goal worth considering might be having the highest number of National Merit Scholarship finalists in the state, but he acknowledged a key limitation of that goal.
â€śThe districts and the schools that brag the most, thatâ€™s what their bragging point is,â€ť Gilbert said. â€śBut, that doesnâ€™t address the whole district. That just addresses the highest performers.â€ť
Conversation in Gilbertâ€™s group quickly turned to closing SSDâ€™s achievement gap. Doug Bedsaul, Starkville Foundation for Public Education president, said he had seen the achievement gap first-hand when his own daughter entered kindergarten.
â€śThere are a lot of kids entering kindergarten who already know how to read,â€ť Bedsaul said. â€śThe ones who donâ€™t are so far behind that they still donâ€™t know how to read when they finish kindergarten. Thatâ€™s a big gap. A lot of that comes from parental involvement at home before they enter kindergarten.â€ť
Hardwick also asked each group to agree on three top priorities for the Starkville School District. Starkville Mayor Parker Wisemanâ€™s group had technology as a top priority, and Wiseman said one avenue the district might wish to explore is online learning, because of its growing popularity on college campuses.
â€śOnline courses â€” not just looking at material online, but online lectures â€” are exploding right now,â€ť Wiseman said. â€śThe question is, what will secondary and elementary education look like (in the future?) I donâ€™t think anything ever completely replaces the classroom setting.â€ť