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Does doctor have medicine for education?

I am not a miracle worker, but I have helped make a miracle happen.

Many locals believe that it will take something extraordinary to turn around the Natchez-Adams School District — a district that ranks among the bottom 15 districts in the state. For residents looking for an education miracle, they might keep an eye on the actions of a Jackson doctor.

Twenty years ago, the Jackson Mall — one of the state’s first indoor shopping malls — sat nearly abandoned. The parking lot, filled with more potholes than cars, surrounded the 93,000 square foot empty hole in the middle of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

It was a scary place. I should know, because I frequented the dark cavernous building that echoed my every footstep.

That was 1995. These days the building is bustling with activity. The parking — no-longer pockmarked — is filled most days, not with shoppers, but with medical professionals and patients who visit them for their health care needs.

There were days when I toured the vacant building with my boss, architect Bob Canizaro, and visionary, Dr. Aaron Shirley, and wondered if they and the medical community could turn around something so lifeless. I was working as an intern responsible for measuring the building.

With Shirley’s unwavering vision, the ailing retail center has been transformed into the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center. The building is filled with healthcare facilities, including University Medical Center, Jackson Heart Study, Jackson State University and American Medical Response.

Not only has the project transformed the building, it has also revived the surrounding community, attracting fast food restaurants, banks, pharmacies and other private businesses.

Having seen how Shirley’s vision accomplished the nearly imaginable in resurrecting the mall, I was not surprised when I discovered that Shirley now has his sights on education. Like the medical facility, Shirley wants to turn around his alma mater, Lanier High School — a school that has fallen into neglect much like the Jackson Mall of the early 90s.

If Shirley’s efforts turn around the school, which is rated a D in the state, it will not only be a miracle for Jackson it could be a model for other failing schools and districts across the state, including schools in Natchez.

With the help of the Jackson Medical Mall and other business leaders, Shirley wants to take advantage of the Mississippi Charter School Act and turn Lanier into a technology and science charter school. The act allows groups to apply for a charter school in districts that rate a D or F in the state’s accountability system.

Shirley’s efforts are giving hope to some parents who want a better education for their children.

The same could be said for parents in Natchez. If done right, a charter school could change the entire picture of education in Natchez. It could not only provide another education alternative to public school students, it would also provide a free option for parents of private schools who are tired of paying twice to educate their children — once in taxes and again in private school tuition.

This has already proven true for the Delta Charter School in Ferriday, which has wooed students and teachers from local schools on both sides of the river.

Charter schools might be the miracle residents are looking for. It might take a visionary like Dr. Aaron Shirley to pave the way.


Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by email at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.