Coming back to the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science was a lot like coming home, Executive Director Donald Cook told the Columbus Rotary Club on Tuesday afternoon at Lion Hills Center.
Cook is a graduate of the inaugural class at MSMS. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and pre-medicine at Mississippi State University, as well as a master’s degree from Mississippi College. He earned a doctorate in education from Liberty University. He has taught at the high school and community college level and also worked as a chemistry instructor and resident assistant at MSMS.
He took the executive director’s position June 1, replacing Germain McConnell.
Cook said the first time he ever heard of the school was in a conversation with his high school guidance counselor.
“I was a tenth-grader,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of information on it, because it didn’t really exist at that time. They had a director, they had hired some teachers, but not much else.”
After being accepted, Cook said he wasn’t sure he would go.
“I didn’t know anybody there, I wasn’t familiar with the school,” he said. “There was no tour available. Our prospective students can take a tour and talk to current students and see what it’s like, but we didn’t have that (back then). The buildings were just finished days before school started.”
Despite Cook’s initial doubts, the decision turned out to be a great one.
“When I got there I found a home,” he said. “I found people who were like-minded, and it was really a shared experience. … We were the first, and there’s a camaraderie that comes with that.”
His class were the “guinea pigs,” he said.
“They thought we were superhuman, maybe,” he said. “They really poured it on. We had to find a place that we were all comfortable.”
Cook said the teachers he remembers the best were often not the ones that he would have expected, in that they were humanities classes, not science.
“A lot of people have the misunderstanding that MSMS is just about math and science, but we have a very rich humanities program,” he said. “We have wonderful English and history teachers. Carl Butler, one of our original teachers, started Tales from the Crypt (where students dress up like Columbians of the past and perform at Friendship Cemetery).”
Cook was one of the students who “couldn’t stay away,” he said, returning to work there while he was in college.
“I went to MSU, and I came back my sophomore year and I taught chemistry labs,” he said. “I came back in my junior year as a (resident assistant) in the dorms.”
The pattern repeated earlier in his teaching career, when a teacher passed away and he was invited to come in and take that position.
“My wife and I had just moved to Georgia,” he said. “I made arrangements and I commuted. I came (to MSMS) on Sunday nights and lived in the dorm. My wife was a saint, she was pregnant at the time, and I don’t know how we did it, but we did. It was one of the best teaching experiences I ever had.”
The school needs help if it’s going to continue to thrive, though.
“We’re trying to upgrade facilities,” he said. “Our dorms were built in the ‘60s, and they look very much like they did in the ‘60s.”
MSMS also needs the means to branch into cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and automation, Cook said.
“We’re at a crucial point now,” he said. “Dr. Julie Jordan at MSU was one of our original faculty members, and she has showed me some of the things schools are doing these days. They play with drones, all kinds of things. I want our students to connect with these new professions so we stay relevant.”
Cook said he wants input from the community about needs, as well.
“What do you want these students, the best and the brightest in Mississippi, to know when they come out of school?” he said. “What can they do for you guys? How can we prepare them for this world they’re entering?”
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.
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