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Fixing Schools in Mississippi



There is a man in Jackson who fixes broken watches. Time may heal all wounds but it takes a special man to heal time.

My Timex did not cost much and the repair bill will probably cost more than the price of a new watch, but a time piece that has served me faithfully over so many years deserves a better end than the bottom of a trashcan.

The thin man selects a small minute wheel from a box filled with tiny parts and places it next to a larger hour wheel. The teeth of both wheels align perfectly. The craftsman connects the two wheels by inserting a pin through a small opening. He snaps a waterproof lens over the dial. "All finished," he said.

I watch the second hand come alive and sweep across the round face of my analogue watch. The repairman gently places a worn jeweler's loupe on the counter and holds the watch next to his right ear. "Sixty beats per minute, "he said softly, "the same as a healthy heart."

"I didn't think the watch would ever work again," I said.

The son of an itinerant watchmaker walks toward the cash register. "Most things can be fixed if people weren't so quick to throw them away."

I will miss my visits to the South. It is a beautiful and timeless place. The land is still home to long lines of freight cars, front porches with swings, soft warm winds, and people who enjoy drinking sweet tea. And Southern folk are a generous and resilient people who see value in broken things.

I have traveled to the heart of the South to find out if a broken school system can be fixed. The state that takes its name from a mighty river has a long history of poor people and poorer schools. In 2007, Mississippi students scored the lowest of any state on the National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both math and science. In 2008, Mississippi was ranked last among fifty states in academic achievement by the American Legislative Exchange Council's Report Card on Education, with the lowest average ACT scores. However, 92% of Mississippi high school graduates took the ACT and 3% took the SAT, in comparison to the national averages of 43% and 45%, respectively.

What's happening in the Magnolia State? A future filled with the hope of a college education seems to be on the mind of many high school students living in a state with the sixth lowest spending per pupil in the nation and little support from the federal government. A federal government that once took pride in desegregating schools in Mississippi has now abandoned its students and schools. Now that white and black children are drinking from the same water fountain, the federal government and Hollywood movie producers have headed home.

But Mississippians are not ready to throw away their schools or children. They want to do what Southerners do best-fix things right.

I am attending the Mississippi Teacher of the Year Symposium at the Jackson Hilton. The event is organized by the Mississippi Teacher Center and its director, Cecily McNair, is planning a rather unique meeting of educators. The audience will include distinguished classroom teachers, administrators, policy makers, academics, and state education officials working together to improve teacher quality and student learning. What a unique idea: A gathering of educators from diverse areas of expertise spending time listening and learning from each other. I feel a bit uneasy as I watch the assemblage of educators gather near a breakfast buffet.

I mention to Cecily that I have never attended a symposium that allows teachers to be part of the process to help design programs and policies to improve education on a state or national level. I commend her initiative to bring together so many professional educators committed to helping children with no strings attached.

"Thanks-we always ask teachers to be part of initiatives that impact teaching and learning, "she said. "To do otherwise is like asking an architect to draw plans for a new school without consulting teachers first-probably not a design "best practice."

Indeed. I complain to her that few states welcome the opinions of classroom teachers and it's a rare sighting to see so many different education professionals nourishing each other at the same breakfast table.

"We believe it's much better to "measure twice and cut once" than it is to "build it now and fix it later," she replied.

Cecily speaks of architects, measuring, and building. She is a daughter of the South and knows how to fix things.

"What's one of the projects you will be working on today?" I asked.

Cecily's eyes ignite with the radiance of enthusiasm. "We are working on developing a statewide teacher evaluation system and are so glad to have the opportunity at our Teacher of the Year Symposium to 'hear the voices' of our exemplary teachers. After all, they know exactly what "effective teaching" is -they're doing it everyday!"

Something very special is happening in the state of Mississippi and federal education officials should take notice. Educators from diverse professional backgrounds are coming together to fix a school system broken by a legacy of destructive state and federal policies. The poor and the wounded are gathered to repair broken schools, mend the lives children, and heal ailing teachers. And these hard-working educators need the financial support of the federal government. We should not ask the state of Mississippi to enter a "race to the top" when the federal government has placed it in last place.

There is a man in Jackson who fixes broken watches. He grew up poor and never had the luxury to throw away something that could still be fixed. And that is story of Mississippi.

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