This idea for a new kind of school could prepare Coast students for jobs of the future

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Mississippi’s Millennial Brain Drain

A vital Coast economy depends on convincing young people to settle here. This Sun Herald series documents and examines “brain drain” and what is being done to combat it.

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It has been deeply gratifying to serve on the State Board of Education for the past eight years because I have seen up close how student outcomes for the state have improved each year.

For example, Mississippi is ranked 2nd in the nation for improvement is fourth-grade reading and fourth in the nation for improvement in 4th-grade math. The graduation rate for the state now mirrors that of the nation at 84 percent.

These achievements have been the direct result of the hard work of students, parents, teachers and school leaders across the state, and a deliberate, focused effort on the part of state education and legislative leaders. Once we all raised expectations for students, our students met — and exceeded — those expectations.

With all the progress made, much work remains. The question each of us should ask is, are our high school students ready for the jobs of the future?

One recent study, Digitalization and the American Workforce by Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, found that the share of U.S. jobs requiring mid- or high-level digital skills jumped from 45 percent to 71 percent between 2002 and 2016. This is a remarkable shift and I don’t think we have prepared for this change in many Mississippi communities.

The obvious question is, what can we do about it?

Focus on career, training

The answer is to transform our high schools. Gulfport High School provides a shining example of forward-thinking in education.

The school has established three academic institutes that allow a student to choose from sixteen (16) pathways. Ninth- and 10th-graders start in academic core institutes that focus on subjects such as math, science, English, and history, all required for graduation.

However, by the time the student reaches 11th and 12th grade, they are enrolled in academic institutes that focus on the student’s specific interests, skills and abilities for college and career readiness.

This is a great model Gulfport high and several other Coast schools have established, but one problem is that all of the vital training areas are not offered nor is there enough space on individual campuses to meet the needs of students.

Also, schools throughout Harrison County and its cities can no longer meet the demands from business and industry to fill available jobs.

New school proposed

These problems are being confronted by school districts all over the country. One such school district is Escambia County in Pensacola. More than 15 years ago, this progressive county established the West Florida High School of Advanced Technology.

This comprehensive high school offers more than 20 career paths for students who enroll from across the county. The class spaces are built at the expense of the school’s business partners with instruction, in many instances, provided by those partners.

This high school’s popularity has grown to the point that students are admitted through a lottery system. To eliminate this problem, the district is preparing to build a completely new campus. In essence, this campus will mirror a Gulfport High School on steroids.

Just before Christmas, I had the good fortune to visit this phenomenal campus in Pensacola with several superintendents and business/industry leader from Harrison and Jackson counties. We all left Pensacola with the same thought: We must build a comprehensive career and technical high school for Harrison County.

This concept will take nothing away from the exceptional work that is going on in each of the county’s school districts but would allow more to be done from one comprehensive campus.

Mississippi’s future will be shaped by our students of today. I am incredibly proud of every student in our state and excited to see how they use their talents to propel our state forward, but we have work yet to be done.

To get this work done, it will take the education and business leaders working together to continue this path of progress that we are now on. We must continue to explore ways to provide quality learning by integrating academic course work to real-life experiences. It will take all of us. Can we count on you to be a part of the team?

John R. Kelly is the chief administrative officer of the City of Gulfport and a member of the Mississippi State Board of Education

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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