ACT train must keep chugging

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 20, 2008

We teach our children beginning at a young age to hope.

Without hope there is no future, no cure, no end, no beginning.

So the mantra “I think I can, I think I can” that fueled the little blue train engine that could up the mountain is a necessary life lesson. Because, after all, can’t never could.

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It was a January 2007 school board meeting when the members of the Natchez-Adams School Board and district administrators started chanting the same mantra, substituting “we” for “I.”

The mountain was lackluster scores on the ACT — a college admissions exam.

If memory serves, the conversation came up a bit out of the blue. Johnny Dale — no longer on the board — was calm, yet very firm, in his insistence that something be done about low ACT scores.

The scores do not factor into the district’s overall rating, which is formed almost entirely by performance on the Mississippi Curriculum Test in lower grades and the state Subject Area Test in high school.

So, it would be easy for the district to let the ACT slide to the back burner. The test only affects students who are on their way out of the district anyway. It would be fairly acceptable to say “If they want to do well on the ACT, students need to prepare themselves,” since ACT produces countless workbooks, CDs and online helps for their test.

But the board didn’t do that.

“I think maybe there are things we aren’t doing that we could be doing,” board Chairman Norris Edney said at the time.

The initial conversation led to talks at the next three meetings, a plan for more rigorous curriculum and a budget to fund test preparation.

Since that time, the district has promoted increased involvement with the Mississippi Scholars program, which pushes a rigorous coursework.

And last week, when 2008 ACT score averages were released, hope had become a reality.

Scores went up in every test category. From the graduating classes of 2007 to 2008 the scores went up from: 16.3 to 17.3 in English, 15.8 to 16.3 in math, 16.9 to 17.1 in reading and 16.8 to 17.4 in science.

Overall, the score went from a 16.6 to a 17.2 — the .6 jump was the biggest change in score in recent years.

And it started with hope.

The district is still lower than the state average — 18.9. But it’s only been a year since the board began its ACT push.

The Mississippi Scholars program — something the NHS principal and superintendent pointed to when scores went up — is still in its early stages. The program begins with seventh graders, who are pushed to start taking rigorous courses in eighth grade and again every year after that.

The students taking last year’s ACT had only been in the Mississippi Scholars program for two years. It stands to reason that when last year’s seventh graders get to 12th grade, they’ll be better prepared and ACT scores will be higher.

In the meantime, it’s all about that little engine that could. If the students, teachers, parents and community follow the lead of the school board and the train engine, they’ll get over the mountain.

But if that hope fades, well, can’t never could.

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or