High-tech training and STEAM curriculum integration give students a leg up on future competition.
Of the quality-of-life assets attracting relocating families and businesses to the Tupelo-Lee County region, schools, more often than not, top the list. Tupelo families are served by both the Tupelo Public School District and the Lee County School District, and businesses can rely on a deep pool of skilled talent trained at Itawamba Community College and the Advanced Education Center, a facility shared between ICC, Mississippi University for Women and the University of Mississippi-Tupelo.
The Tupelo Public School District, which celebrated its 100th year serving the community in 2017, recently implemented a district-wide arts integration program that uses drama, music, theater and visual art to help teach academic concepts.
“Our arts-integrated curriculum in pre-K through eighth grade really sets our district apart,” says Mary Ann Plasencia, director of communications for the Tupelo Public Schools District. “Core subject areas like math and science, English and history are taught through drama or creative writing or through the visual arts. That’s something we’re really proud of, and we’ve tried very hard to provide good professional development for our teachers so that they can infuse the arts while they’re teaching their everyday lessons. And it’s a part of our lesson planning and how we map out the year.”
Plasencia says the district also emphasizes the use of technology in the classroom. Every student in sixth through 12th grades is provided a laptop to use for research, homework and for accessing the district’s learning management system. Many classrooms are equipped with smartboards, and most of the textbooks and learning materials are digital. Elementary school students are learning to code, and the high school offers 21 Advanced Placement Courses, including Japanese.
“We’re preparing our students to compete in a global economy, and we understand we must provide a curriculum with rigor because the competition is much stiffer than it used to be,” Plasencia says.
Heart of the Community
The Lee County Public School District, which serves students in the Belden, Guntown, Mooreville, Plantersville, Saltillo, Shannon, and Verona communities, is one of the largest districts in the state. Like Tupelo Public Schools, the Lee County district places an emphasis on technology in college and career readiness.
“We’ve implemented ‘Exploring Computer Science’ at all three high schools this year. In this class, students learn computer coding that will enable them to create apps and write computer programs. Several schools have also formed robotics and bridge building teams,” says Jimmy Weeks, superintendent, Lee County School District. “We use the College and Career Ready Standards, and our curriculum prepares students to enter either the workforce or college upon graduation. Our high schools encourage job shadowing and mentorship experiences, and we are currently pursuing more and better vo-tech opportunities as well.”
Weeks says the district’s success stems from the integration into the communities it serves.
“Lee County Schools is a strong school district and our parents and students believe in us. Our schools give back to their communities through service projects like Make a Wish, Salvation Army Angel Tree, St. Jude and LeBonheur,” Weeks says. “When students graduate, many of them choose to return to their communities, or at the very least, remain in Lee County to work and raise a family.”
How Tupelo, MS is Building a Diverse Economy
Both Tupelo and Lee County school districts partner with Itawamba Community College to offer dual enrollment, which allows students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit. ICC also offers workforce training at the Workforce Development Center in Belden. The center offers a host of programs, including adult education, English as a second language, and basic computer training. The center’s menu of career services include training in high-demand areas, such as health care and manufacturing.
“We have about a 90 percent job placement for the students going through the Manufacturing Skills Basic Certification. A lot of companies hire straight out of that program, which students can finish in six to eight weeks. And then we offer other stackable credentials that students can put on top of that certification if they want to move up in the field,” says Dr. Joe Lowder, Itawamba Community College dean of Economic and Community Development.