Several lawmakers were in attendance for the forum, among them was U.S. Rep. Linda Coleman.
“I know for me education was stressed in my household growing up,” she said. “For me education is always the big challenge for policy in strengthening education. Most of our low performing schools are in the Delta.
“With that said, I would like to take time to commend Mound Bayou and North Bolivar School Districts for achieving successful status as a school district — as a whole,” said Coleman.
“I believe in Cleveland that there were particular schools that did well and I think Hayes Cooper was noted as a star school, which there are only a few of those in the state. However, as a district Cleveland did not score well.
“You may have heard statistics that when children in the fourth grade begin failing it feeds into how many prisons are built,” she said. “With that said I want to say this — I can put policies in place but the community needs to bind together and stress the importance of education.”
Coleman said children in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade risk continuing to get further and further behind if parents, community members and churches do not intervene.
“It is not going to be just policy that is going to help our problems with education,” said Coleman. “We have to get involved in making sure our kids are reading a book during school breaks to enhance their own education. We have to be willing to do things for ourselves.
“The population on the coast and in north Mississippi is booming,” she said. “The Delta is going to have to go for it itself. They are not looking to come in and save us. We are going to have to do it ourselves.
“Education is largely tied to economic development,” Coleman continued. “Education and the workforce are very important. All those in that area where they’ve built that new Toyota plant were level five schools. Companies are attracted to areas where education is at a high standard.
“I can’t stress enough how important education is,” she said. “We have to come together. The best opportunities for the Delta will come from education coupled with economic development.”
Audience member Gertrude Billings asked what measures are taken when that happens.
“Right now in our area, Baxter’s is still our largest employer,” said Billings. “We have PharMEDium and Faurecia also but we do not really have any other major companies in this area.
“So what are your tactics or defense for attracting businesses to the area to improve our revenue,” she asked.
“Job creation is a major issue,” said Sen. Eugene S. “Buck” Clarke. “Toyota, Nissan and companies like that are not beating down our doors right now. Linda is right. It’s going to have to start with us local people.
“We are going to have to start starting businesses and shopping at home,” said Clarke. “We have to stop driving to Jackson and Memphis. With the sales tax revenue we keep at home, we can fix our streets and other things. We would be paying ourselves.
“For instance, Internet is one of those unresolved issues,” he said. “A lot of those things are habits that we have. I’m guilty of it too but we have to change the way we do things and take care of our own.
“We also have to take care of our own dropout rate,” said Clarke. “We have an astounding dropout rate. I think it’s somewhere around 30 percent of our students in ninth grade don’t finish.”
Clarke said he is trying to put something together with a group of people that will help with the dropout rate. He said a lot of kids just need someone to take interest in them.
“We want it to be said — hey you guys must not have a problem down there because your kids are not dropping out of school, which would greatly help our economic development,” he said.
Valeria Smith-Silas asked the panel if the state had any interest in investing in early childhood education. Silas explained how important she believes early education is for children and how vulnerable a child is during his or her early stages of life.
She also explained how it appeared as if the state has not taken a stand in becoming involved with early childhood education.
“That is one of the issues we’ve talked about in the legislature,” said Clarke.
“One issue with that is money,” said Coleman. “Everybody does not agree that pre-K or kindergarten education should be made mandatory. Then when you begin to discuss the state’s involved in those areas, we have to consider what would happen to established programs that focus on that area such as Head Start.
“These are the things that are being discussed and asked when I’m in the halls of Jackson,” she said.
“Head Start has even changed their mission,” said Silas. “I know what I’m doing at home with my child but I’m worried about what’s gong to happen when she goes to school.
“Is that teacher and school going to be able to handle her mentally and physically,” asked Silas.
“The state doesn’t have a pre-k program,” said Clarke. “A lot of churches and other individuals are a little disjointed and may not have the right curriculum they need.
“What we may do is look at really seeing what we can do for licensing for pre-k programs,” he said. “We need to get a handle on this so we may not have to reinvent the wheel entirely.”