School board members want to make improvements

Published 8:21 pm Thursday, August 20, 2020

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As a former classroom teacher and a current classroom teacher who serve on your Natchez Adams County School District School Board, we want to communicate some of the progress of the District as well as our personal concerns and vision for the children of Natchez and Adams County during these challenging times.

The NASD school board members are not elected; rather, we are appointed by the elected board of aldermen and board of supervisors for a specific term. Our salaries are capped by the State of Mississippi at $200/ month, unlike boards in neighboring Louisiana. We hire and oversee the work of our Superintendent Fred Butcher.

As many of you are aware, the tax millage was slightly raised, giving the public schools more tax dollars. This was not done lightly and was a compromise based on budgetary discussions and future needs, particularly when apprised of the new costs from COVID-19 and the growing number of exceptional children who must be served by the public schools (by exceptional we mean children with identified disabilities). It is important to understand that all federal funds to public and private schools that support children are mandated by the federal government to be funneled through NASD’s Federal Programs Department, making NASD responsible for the allocation of federal funds to Cathedral and Adams County Christian School.

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Although the rate of poverty in Adams County has increased, our schools have nevertheless improved, and most received a higher grade than last year. Rest assured, we are not happy with these performances, but are cognizant daily of the challenges our students and their parents face at home and how our economy impacts the classroom. Mississippi Department of Education’s grading system gives us no dispensation for our many children with identified disabilities or our poverty rate when issuing an overall grade report. As classroom teachers or any one with common sense can understand, working with educationally at-risk students takes more effort and dollars to achieve the same results.

The board has also approved the building of a new high school on land adjacent to the current high school. While the public voted down the larger amount requested by NASD, and at least two board members were not involved in the early stages of the process, the compromise has been made to use available bond monies and rescale the more expensive plan to a streamlined one.

This new plan was strategically downsized without sacrificing quality by including the new ways students use computer learning and wireless systems, having less lab space through the multi-purposing of labs, and re-envisioning the library as media collaboration space much like universities. We are pleased that the project managers for this new school are the Volkert Group, based out of Mobile, Alabama.

Volkert works nationwide, and they managed the renovation of the junior high school in St. Francisville and are working on the new construction of the elementary school in St. Francisville. Volkert will help the board select a general contractor in the future. NASD will hold a pre-bid conference in late September or early October that will be widely publicized.

The good news is how many of our students in NASD are achieving at the highest levels even though some of them face daunting challenges. The current leadership established the Natchez Early College at Copiah Lincoln Community College, which was recognized by the U.S. News and World Report as one of the outstanding high schools in the nation. It is hoped that this model may be replicated in the future to channel NASD students toward either vocational programs or the theatrical arts and music. Indeed, some local groups are working with Alcorn Nursing Program in hopes of pursuing something similar in Medical Arts on the Alcorn Natchez Campus.

Film Natchez is working with our Fallin Vocational Center to establish courses in film production as the film industry is poised to be a real economic boost through the growing creative economy in Natchez.

We are eager to bring education into the twenty first century in Natchez Adams County. Our students are eager for that too. When the Chamber of Commerce’s Youth Leadership Natchez Program brought the most talented students from NASD, Cathedral, Adams County Christian and homeschoolers together, they made friends easily and often voiced regret that they had not known one another or been able to see their community in its fullness until attending this program. They are our future, and we must recommit ourselves to working together and finding educational solutions.

Thelma Newsome and Dianne Bunch are members of the Natchez Adams School District Board.