Every Wednesday for 10 weeks after school began, Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science math teacher Lauren Zarandona and several of her students spent hours after school on Zoom meetings with first- through sixth-grade students throughout the state working on math problems.
Zarandona called the program Weekly Wednesday Workouts — “math to get your mind moving” — and it was part of MSMS’s outreach program to reach younger students throughout the state. Parents or teachers could sign up their children for the sessions, which were led by Zarandona’s 11th and 12th graders.
“First graders on Zoom is a really special experience that I never want to do again, personally,” Zarandona said laughing during a presentation by MSMS teachers and administrators to a handful of state legislators at the school’s Columbus campus on Thursday. “My students took care of it. Some of them really have a heart for the younger kids, and that’s awesome.”
The program has worked well enough that MSMS teachers plan to expand it to include science and engineering sessions next semester, she said.
Weekly Wednesday Workouts grew out of other outreach and distance learning programs that MSMS teachers have implemented over the past couple of years, from statewide math and science competitions the school has hosted for younger students to training programs for teachers from underserved districts. MSMS teachers gave an overview of those programs, along with the school’s engineering program, to the legislators Thursday.
“We can’t serve every school in Mississippi. We’re just too small,” MSMS Executive Director Germain McConnell said. “But our focus is: how do we help those under-resourced areas, those areas where you have kids who need to be in those more advanced level classes? Even in those schools that have resources, it’s hard to find teachers to teach those upper level classes, so that’s what we want to do.”
He said partly thanks to a $270,000 appropriation from the state Legislature last year, MSMS hired teachers to conduct online programs and classes with students from around the state, such as students from Choctaw Tribal Schools, which works closely with the school’s distance learning coordinator Alison Alexander, another math teacher.
Alexander said the online classes began last year with 52 students from the Choctaw Tribal Schools enrolled in Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II and Algebra III classes. This year, it expanded to more than 100 Choctaw and Columbus Municipal School District students in those classes, plus AP Calculus and AP Statistics. Since both Choctaw and Columbus’ districts have moved to online or hybrid models during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alexander said, it’s been relatively easy to implement those classes for the districts’ more advanced students.
“They’re exceptional students,” she said. “They know what they’re supposed to do and they do everything asked of them, and that’s because they started in Algebra I in eighth grade.”
Legislators said they were impressed with the teachers’ presentation, with Rep. Jason White (R-Kosciusko), who serves as Speaker Pro Tempore, saying MSMS could help other school districts around the state implement online learning during the pandemic.
“There may be a role for the School of Math and Science to play in furthering those efforts,” he said. “They’re obviously ahead of the game as compared to most other school districts throughout the state, and with their excellent teachers, it just kind of makes sense to try to promote that and spread it throughout the state.”
Renovation and new facilities
McConnell also used the presentation as the opportunity to ask the legislators for funding and policy changes that will help MSMS improve its facilities and serve more students.
The school’s first priority is obtaining $18.5 million to renovate the school’s residence halls, which need a new, energy-efficient HVAC system as well as some plumbing and lighting updates, said Leann Alexander, director for Student Affairs. MSMS has also hired Tupelo-based Architecture South to draw plans for a connector building between the two halls which will include a kitchen and common study areas and game rooms. Currently, students have to use dorm rooms for things like practicing musical instruments and studying.
McConnell said the designs have not yet been approved by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which must approve changes to historic buildings on Mississippi University for Women’s campus, including the residence halls. Currently, he said, there is some concern from MDAH officials that the connector building will change the historic facade, but he hopes to continue working with them to get the design approved.
McConnell and Leann Alexander also said the school needs $200,000 to plan a new two-story academic building called the Hooper Annex. McConnell said the school has not hired a firm to design the building yet, but he thinks it will end up costing roughly $10 million to $12 million.
McConnell’s second priority was asking legislators to change educational policy so that MSMS can save any extra funding it has left at the end of its fiscal year. While most school districts throughout the state are legally required to carry a certain fund balance, MSMS and Mississippi School for the Arts both act more like traditional government departments, and any money they receive must be spent that fiscal year. McConnell said he doesn’t want to be required to have a fund balance — almost all the funding MSMS receives from the Legislature, alumni foundations and other income sources is spent by the end of each year — but he also doesn’t want to be required by law to spend all the school’s funding when some of it can go toward future expenses.
His last request was an additional $500,000 annually to expand student enrollment to 300 residential 11th and 12th graders. Right now, the Legislature appropriates about $4.85 million to MSMS every year, which allows MSMS to accept 240 students.
“I think these last couple years, we could have brought in about 35 to 40 additional students that would make good students,” McConnell said.
Rep. Dana McLean (R-Columbus) said she wants to at least help secure funding for residence hall renovations. Her daughter graduated from MSMS in 2017, and some of the facilities needed renovations then, she said.
“I would like for them to be able to have a larger student body, and I know that the dorms need work because of, like I said, when my daughter was here, so I really would like for the facilities to be improved,” she said. “But for other students, and lesser-served communities, I would love for them to be able to have the faculty to increase that distance learning and teacher training for teachers in other, lesser-served communities.”
McConnell said he wanted legislators to understand the value MSMS adds to the state.
“It’s so much more than just the students that we serve on our campus,” he said. “… That means hopefully inspiring the next STEM leaders across this state, the next entrepreneur. It’s not just about recruitment for us. It’s about really impacting students or doing something or saying something that’s going to impact them to change their direction or be more motivated while they’re in school.”
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.