Raising Cain - and Test Scores - in Mississippi

Three women in a small town in northeast Mississippi are using Parents for Public Schools to push their local schools to improve.  Their own children - the motivation for their involvement - will benefit, of course.  But many others reap the benefits.

In Mississippi, students must pass an end-of-course Algebra I exam and several others before they can graduate from high school. In the relatively poor, racially-divided public schools in Okolona (population 3,100) passing the algebra test was a hurdle for some students. Concerned parents took on this challenge.

Barbara Carouthers and Sarah Jenkins are parents of students in Okolona’s public schools. Barbara is the local bookmobile librarian, and Sarah Jenkins is a PLI graduate. Together they developed a project to help students improve in math. Marsha Gates, another PLI graduate, soon joined their ranks. Carouthers recalled meeting with a teacher who admitted not having all of the skills she needed to help students pass the test. “We heard the plea in her voice,” Carouthers said.  So the women went to work!

They surveyed parents on what families saw as students’ greatest needs in the community. One of the main themes was that students were not excelling in math and were failing to pass the Algebra I exam in large numbers.These three women determined to hold an algebra workshop – for the students and the community. Retired local teacher Karen Howard discussed the kinds of skills students need to learn in algebra, how different students learn differently, and the steps toward helping more students pass the graduation test. Carouthers said, “Parents and students always are invited to attend sessions together, so that they both understand what’s at stake.”

Howard, the retired math teacher, has returned to hold tutoring sessions and information meetings with parents and students, Carouthers said. “Her help has made a tremendous difference,” she added.

“Everybody has a different ‘learning style.’ The teacher must present it in a different way so that everybody can catch on,” said Gates, a lifelong Okolona resident who works as a security supervisor in nearby Tupelo. “Without PLI, I don’t know that parents would have the confidence to say, ‘teach my child the way he needs to be taught.’”

The result has been higher numbers passing the test each semester now for two years. While work remains, many educators, parents and students are seeing the results from a program first developed by parents. “The students were relieved because they needed that extra help,” Gates said. “When they took that test, they were a success.”

The Okolona women’s work continues—and the schools and the community are making changes for the better. “You can call us and we will ask the hard questions,” Carouthers said. “If there are three women who are verbally saying the hard things,” it keeps the heat on those in power,” she said. “We’ve told parents, ‘If you are afraid, we will be there for you. … but you have a right to ask the questions. A lot of parents don’t know that.”

Schoolhouse to Statehouse and the PLI program gives parents louder voices to help guide the state’s education policy decisions and lobby state leaders for greater support of public schools. It’s working.

“I enjoyed every bit of it,” Gates said. “I wish all the parents could take the time to go through.”

“Parents for Public Schools is very, very important because it gives us—the parents and business owners (and others) – the opportunity to learn more about your school district and the strengths and weaknesses,” Gates said. “And also it gives us the tools to use in order to strengthen the weak areas.”

Carouthers added: “We are not going to stop.”

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