Changing the culture

Too many Mississippi young people, particularly athletes it seems, are floundering in school, which limits their possibilities of a productive future. It doesn't have to be this way.

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. I have no expertise in the field of education, but I have spent a quarter of a century watching the backwash and backlash of our young people not being able to qualify for college entrance/athletic eligibility. I thoroughly understand college is "not for everyone," but I also feel certain many kids who could make it academically beyond high school are being lost in the shuffle. The following are some thoughts on the subject. I will base a lot of this on student/athletes because that is who I have had the most exposure to. Feedback and discussion is welcome on our message boards.

Year after year, we watch the drama in college football recruiting and instead of it centering around who is going to sign the best football players in our state, the focus is on who is qualified academically.

On some level, does that not make you sad? Angry? Embarrassed? Disgusted?

Wondering if you are rolling the dice extending an offer of one of your precious 25 scholarships to someone who will not be able to get into school becomes more of a talking point than that kid's athletic prowess.

Year after year, "we," the fans of our major universities, are holding our collective breath in August, not only to see if who we signed will be eligible to enroll and participate but if who is on the current roster will escape academic expulsion as well.

It has become a vicious cycle, one that does not seem to be getting better.

What can be done? I have talked to several experts in the field of education to get some ideas, but I have also drawn my own conclusions based on those talks. These "ideas" are not the product of original thought on my part, rather a compilation of what I consider the best thoughts of others. Again, my opinion only.

One, the 10-point grading scale is a must in Mississippi.

In our state, many districts are using any test/grade score between 93-100 as an A, 84-92 as a B, 75-83 as a C, etc. In surrounding states, letter grades are on a 10-point scale, i.e., 91-100 is an A, 81-90 is a B, etc.

That does not seem like much of a difference, but let me give you two examples where the difference is huge.

One, when Florida instituted the 10-point scale, their dropout rate dropped a whopping 22%. Kids making 74, for example, which previously was a D and was now a C, felt hope and a sense that they could succeed. So the results was as many didn't quit school.

Some may believe that is watering down the system by making it easier to make a higher letter grade. That may be true, but it's not like we are trendsetters in education in Mississippi. If our bordering states are doing it, it should be a high enough standard for us as well, in my humble opinion.

Two, look at the ramifications in comparing a student from Florida to a student from Mississippi. If both make a 91 on the same core course test, the Florida student has an A and a 4.0 GPA. The Mississippi student has a B and 3.0 GPA. It puts the Magnolia stater at an immediate disadvantage for merit scholarship money and other considerations for academic achievement. Same 91, different benefits. Does not seem fair for the Mississippi child, to me.

What I didn't know was the 10-point scale decision is in the hands of each individual school district in our state. It is not a state matter, I have been told. I understand the DeSoto County district has already instituted it.

Urge your school districts to do the same. It is vital to getting us on an even playing field with surrounding states and in giving our kids a better opportunity to succeed and feel good about themselves. Confident kids are productive kids.

I know for a fact some of the better football recruits this year were previously tested and their projected failure to get qualified was not a result of a low IQ. The 10-point scale would have help some - not all, but some.

The next area of attack needs to come from the people who guide our young folks.

Some will want to hang me up by my bootstraps for writing this, but I believe someone has to say it.

High school coaches have to be given the backing to help in the process of educating our children without any backlash based on winning and losing.

I have long been disturbed that the "win or else" mentality has taken over our thinking on the high school level. High school coaches being fired solely over losing games is about the dumbest method of doing business in our education system I can imagine.

The way we have things set up now, high school coaches cannot be educators and cannot truly prepare our young people for the future because there is too much pressure on them to win to keep their employment and keep the best athletes eligibile by whatever means necessary.

On the high school level, our coaches must be allowed to be educators first and coaches second. I am really tired of seeing high school heroes end up with high school athletics being the highlight of their lives. That is what we are fostering right now and it's sickening.

Do our communities really base their self worth on whether or not their high school team wins? Are we that shallow? If so, we will stay in the rut we are in perpetually because we have no clue about the big picture.

A coach in our state has to be able to say, "Johnny, you are not taking care of your business in the classroom so you cannot play" without any fear of losing his job due to Johnny not playing and his team losing.

That way when a coach or counselor gives a kid a plan for graduation/eligibility/opportunity to go to college, it's clear, it's in black and white and the young person has to be accountable or something he/she loves will be taken away. Trust me, when guidelines are set and strictly enforced, kids will get the picture and comply. On the other hand, if they know they will be passed along solely because they are great players, they will continue to take advantage of the system and not get prepared for anything beyond high school.

Right now, however, it seems as if the pressure to win is more important than the pressure to prepare our children for the rest of their lives. That is a shame and a sham in our education system.

And if we did it the "right" way, wouldn't that have more significance when you did win? Wouldn't that give you even more community pride? Wouldn't that return more productive citizens back to the community in the long run?

Citizens of communities, school boards, principals, coaches - everyone - need to bite the bullet. No pass, no play - and mean it. Period, end of discussion.

It is time we start producing more young people who are ready to thrive and enjoy the college experience rather than kids who are sweating to survive college work or can't even get in to see if college is for them or not. That, in turn, will also produce better athletes because college coaches can spend more energy on preparing them for sports challenges rather than spending as much time as they do trying to keep them eligible.

I like what Hu Meena at Cellular South is doing with its GamePlan program. They have hired David Saunders to advise many of the top high school student-athletes in the state how to prepare themselves for college. They are giving them a plan and some direction. Regular students can also benefit from the program.

I applaud those efforts, standing ovation actually, but I do not believe just having a plan will cure everything.

"Everyone" has to be involved in this undertaking. Everyone has to keep their eye on the ball and understand the whole scope of what is happening.

Everyone has to be accountable.

I am not naive. I understand there are going to be a certain percentage of our young people who won't make it no matter what. And I understand some of those will be outstanding athletes.

I understand my lack of understanding in how to get all of this done. I also understand the world does not operate in ideals, which is all I have loosely proposed.

But I truly believe everything mentioned is attainable. The different grading scale. The trust in coaches to do the right thing. The removal of so much pressure to win on the high school level. Having faith in our young people to be able to get the job done if they understand they will be held accountable, whether they run a 4.3 40 or a 5.5 40.

There are no shortcuts in this thinking. It will not be easy. A lot of people will have to buy in and change their thinking to change the culture.

But what is the alternative? Mississippi will remain on the bottom.

We have nothing to lose to try something different. To me, what we are doing is not working and we can't get much worse.

It is embarrassing year after year to watch a high percentage of our top athletes struggle and scramble and fail.

It is embarrassing to me as a Mississippian that we accept the fact that the TD run for a state championship by a 17-year old might be the biggest thing he will ever accomplish in a life of 70-odd years. That is too sad to even fathom.

It is embarrassing because it doesn't have to be this way. Yet, it is.

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