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Leadership Jackson County goes back to school

Jackson County schools have a lot of exciting, innovative programs to challenge their students and prepare them for the next phase of their lives.

Leadership Jackson County class members had a chance to see some of those programs up close Thursday with tours of the Aaron Jones Family Interactive Center, St. Martin High School and Jackson County Career & Technical Center.

While funding continues to be a problem in education, local leaders say their students are thriving despite the belt-tightening.

The Family Interactive Center in Pascagoula is a free facility that gives families a chance to learn together. This school year, more than 7,000 people have taken advantage of Super Saturdays. Since the center opened in 2009, 70,000 people have come through its doors to participate in events, said Debbie Anglin, director of communication for the Pascagoula School District.

There’s a pirate room, wetlands room, recording studio, video games, planetarium, Main Street room - with grocery store, fire station, bank and more - and a STEM room to challenge students in engineering, math and technology.

Local day cares bring their children in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there’s a pre-k Launching Pad for newborns through five-year-olds to help prep them for kindergarten.

The center even offers parenting classes and programs for teen mothers so they can stay in school, and Connections Parent Center to keep parents engaged in their child's education.

At the Jackson County Career & Technical Center, we had a chance to see a 3-D copier. I’ve seen them on the national news, but didn’t know there was one at a school in our county. Students put specs for an object into a computer, which transfers the information to the copier. And it produces the object. Pretty space age.

The students in that IT program earn certifications that will help them land college scholarships, or jobs after completing a one- or two-year program.

We had a full tour of the center by director Diane Novak, who takes a lot of pride in what they accomplish there.

Students also can learn welding, shop, mechanics and medical training. A surprising bit of information is that shop class had as many girls sign up this school year as boys. The students learn construction skills by building items like bookshelves, then work their way up to dog houses and sheds, including electrical wiring.

Students from Vancleave and St. Martin high schools are bused in for classes.

Principal Dina Holland gave us a tour of the new St. Martin High School, which opened in 2010. It looks like a college campus, and with 1,200 students, it’s the largest high school in Jackson County (and is part of the Jackson County School District).

The culinary students have received several accolades on a regional level (and prepared us some delicious banana bread and lemonade).

We also visited Junior ROTC, art and technology classrooms.

We heard from superintendents of all local districts - Ocean Springs, Moss Point, Pascagoula and Jackson County - who talked about how they are preparing their teachers - and students - for the Common Core program being implemented nationwide.

They all encouraged parental involvement, and encouraged residents to get involved, volunteer and talk to legislators about the importance of school funding.

Despite national news that sometimes reports negative issues in education, as the day ended, I couldn’t help but feel optimistic about the future of students in these school districts.