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Southern Echo is a leadership development, education and training organization working to develop effective accountable grassroots leadership in the African-American communities in rural Mississippi and the surrounding region through comprehensive training and technical assistance programs. Our work has carried Southern Echo staff into 12 additional states across the south and southwest.

Southern Echo's underlying goal is to empower local communities through effective community organizing work, in order to create a process through which community people can build the broad-based organizations necessary to hold the political, economic, educational, and environmental systems accountable to the needs and interests of the African-American community.

“02/14/2012″ - Ayers Lecture Series – Leroy Johnson continues the MVSU Ayers Distinguished Lecture Series with a lecture on “Public Education Budgets as Public Education Policy.” The lecture will be held at the Supervisors’ Building, 115 Court Street, Historic Courthouse Square, Lexington, MS 39095). All lectures begin at 6:00pm.

“08/01/2010″ to “09/30/2010″ - Redistricting Public Hearings – Legislative Reapportionment Committee will hold public hearings to elicit public input concerning adoption of guidelines to redistrict the Congressional, Legislative and Judicial offices in 2011.

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News Archive

Welcome to Southern Echo. Here we invite you to learn who we are, what we do, and why we do it. We work hard to provide our visitors with the information, data and challenging analyses that bring to life the key public policy issues facing our communities. Learn about the communities and organizations with whom we partner to achieve our goals, stay up-to-date with our work, and find out how you can get involved or support our work whether you live in the Delta or on the other side of the world. Our continued success not only strengthens our own communities, but the larger world community in which we all live.

Let us know how we can improve the site and what additions you might like to see. Visit often, check out the photos and videos from our events, and keep up with the news below. We're looking forward to working with you. As always, we are proud to work for you.

State Education Stakeholders Meet with Yale University to Discuss Potential Policy Reforms

December 11th, 2013

Comer Workshop December 11, 2013, Jackson, MS – Twenty-five community leaders, educators, policy makers, and education advocates joined together with staff from Yale University’s Comer Development Center in an effort to introduce the Comer Development Model to education stakeholders in the state and consider how the model might support the goal of creating a quality, first-rate education that addresses the needs of all students in Mississippi’s public schools regardless of circumstance. Participants included staff from the Mississippi Department of Education, Jackson State University, the Mississippi Association of Educators, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Operation Shoestring, and community organizing organizations working on educational policy issues across the state. Southern Echo, Inc. hosted the workshop, which was funded by Communities for Public Education Reform (CPER).

As described in “Transforming School Leadership and Management, “The Comer Process is an educational change initiative based on the principles of child, adolescent, and adult development. It mobilizes teachers, administrators, parents and other concerned adults to support students’ personal, social, and academic growth. It also helps them make better programmatic and curriculum decisions based on students’ needs and on developmental principles. The Comer Process is not a project or add-on, but rather an operating system – a way of managing, organizing, coordinating, and integrating activities.”

Ellen Reddy, Executive Director of Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Holmes County, MS, and public education advocate, commented, “Education policy makers from time to time come up with appropriate policy changes and guidelines, but they seem to be more ignored than implemented largely because policy making hasn’t been an inclusive process. The Comer Process is transformative in that it values what each of us brings to the table and utilizes each persons expertise as an equal partner to improve both our schools and communities.”

“As educators we know that it’s vital to meet every individual child’s needs – be that academic, social, or emotional. The Comer Model supports creating a true partnership in shared decision making with educators, parents, and community to provide a comprehensive plan to make sure that individual student needs are met allowing them to become well educated citizens,” stated Beverly Brahan of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

The Comer Process, named for James P. Comer, MD, who developed it, focuses on enabling all of the education stakeholders to play an integral role in the development and implementation of the school model to develop the whole child.

“SDP is committed to the total development of children and adolescents by helping parents, educators, and policymakers create learning environments that support children’s development along the critical pathways. Children who develop well, learn well. Our vision is to help create a just and fair society in which all children have the support for development that will allow them to become positive and successful contributors in family, work, and civic life,” said Dr. Camille Cooper, Director of Teaching and Learning at Yale University’s Comer Development Center and workshop facilitator.

The Comer Process is built upon three structures that provide the “basic framework”: A School Planning and Management Team, a Student and Staff Support Team, and a Parent Team.

Each of these structures focus on accountability rather than blame, consensus decision-making through dialogue and understanding, and the exercise of responsibility through collaboration rather than turf.

Southern Echo’s Executive Director, Leroy Johnson, agrees with the principles of the Comer Model. “Introducing the Comer Model is a necessary step in combatting the arbitrary and capricious student discipline policies and practices that push students out of school and ultimately toward the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline that plagues our public schools, with particularly negative consequences for children of color, low wealth, or disabilities, “ said Mr. Johnson.

“While our state education leaders, and many local education leaders, acknowledge the problems that exists, they also often focus blame for these outcomes on the students and their parents, rather than the policies and practices, poor classroom management, and woeful negative leadership coming from school board, superintendents and principals who are ultimately in control and responsible for the existence of these conditions,” commented Mike Sayer, Senior Organizer and Training Coordinator with Southern Echo, Inc.

For example, students who show indications of difficulty in terms of academic or behavioral problems are supposed to receive assessment and supports through a Teacher Support Team and the Response to Intervention guidelines, which are also intended to assist teachers to learn how to appropriately respond to and assist with the particular needs of such students. In addition, there are commitments to use Positive Behavior Intervention Supports and conflict resolution strategies, all of which separately and in combination comprise meaningful alternatives to pushing students out of class, out of school, on to the streets and in to the juvenile justice system. Such students are entitled to an individual behavior plan which must be based on research-based evidence to support the strategies outlined in the plan.

But the student assessments made by a psychometrist or psychologist can be expensive and the school districts are reluctant to incur such costs (especially when their operating revenues from the state are drastically reduced). Further, there must be an appreciation for the needs of students who act out and this compassion and understanding is often lacking as a basis for helping students rather than casting them out.

Administrative frustration often leads to arbitrary, capricious and inappropriate disciplines that are counter-productive: beating students (so-called corporal punishment), suspension, expulsion, referral to the juvenile justice system, or warehousing students in non-productive in-school suspension rooms or poorly designed and operating Alternative Schools.

At the same time, parents and students often do not know their rights and, therefore, are not in a position to insist upon them and enforce them.

Nevertheless, each year by state statute there is an opportunity for parents and students to advocate for the adoption of better, more appropriate policies to guide teachers, administrators, students and parents by participation in the policy-making process.

Workshop participants will be working to introduce and implement the Comer Model as a part of their education organizing work. “The Comer process requires that community education stakeholders come together to work for the kinds of revisions identified in the Model, which may not be achieved all at once, but which over a period of time can vastly improve and transform the culture and quality of education in local schools,” said Helen Johnson, Southern Echo’s Education Coordinator.

ACA Enrollment Clinic in Holmes County a Major Success, Community Wants ACA

November 18th, 2013

ACANovember 18, 2013, Jackson, MS – Holmes County, MS — The Federal Healthcare Insurance Marketplace was up and working last weekend, which was fortunate because 16 volunteers from Southern Echo were in Holmes County assisting residents seeking to sign up for healthcare insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” Mayor Tasha Davis of Durant, the Holmes County Board of Supervisors, and Nollie Jenkins Family Center sponsored the event with Southern Echo. Faculty and students of the New York-based Sarah Lawrence College Health Advocacy Program designed and offered comprehensive volunteer training, on not only the Affordable Care Act, but also Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), and Medicare.

As of Nov. 1, health insurance navigators based at UMMC had signed up only 120 residents, while the Southern Echo and Sarah Lawrence volunteers signed up nearly 40 in one weekend using both online and paper applications. Volunteer Dianna Freelon-Foster, the Director of Activists With A Purpose in Grenada noted, “If community organizations in every county did this, then we would have everyone who is eligible for health care coverage signed up.”

Ms. Freelon-Foster also pointed out, “You see up front the negative impact of the decision not to expand Medicaid,” referring to Gov. Bryant’s decision to refuse 100% reimbursement of Medicaid costs for new enrollees if the state expanded coverage to include those earning up to 138% of poverty level, which would be almost $16,000 per year for an individual or about what a minimum wage full-time Walmart worker earns.

Over 35 residents received advice and assistance, not only on signing up for health insurance but also on problems with Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP). Citizens presented with a diversity of health care affordability needs, demonstrating why it’s important for organizations like Southern Echo and it’s partners to be engaged in helping residents access Obamacare. As Leroy Johnson, Executive Director of Southern Echo noted, “Community groups are willing to deal with the whole person, that means working with individuals and their families in ways that support them, and making sure they get the kind of services that they deserve and need.”

Participants in the sign up event found the experience so helpful that they went out to recruit others to take advantage of this important, but rarely available, service.

Southern Echo, through its trained volunteer force, will be offering additional Affordable Healthcare Insurance clinics throughout the Delta through March 31, 2014.

MS Will Send Team to Chicago Conference on Common Core Standards; Focus is on Outreach to Parents as Essential to Success in New Curriculum

November 18th, 2013

Mike Leaving MDE MeetingNovember 18, 2013, Jackson, MS – Southern Echo’s Senior Organizer Mike Sayer will be part of a 5-member MS state team invited by MS Interim State Supt. of Education Lynn House to participate in a national conference on Common Core Standards to be conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Policy Innovators in Education Network in Chicago, Illinois October 28 - 30, 2013.

Other members of the team are Walt Drane and Patrice Guilfoyle of the MS Dept. of Education, Nancy Loome of the MS Parents’ Campaign and Rachel Canter of Mississippi First.

The focus of the conference will be to bring educators, policy makers, and community organizations together to share analyses on how best to communicate with parents about the new national curriculum standards embodied in the Common Core Standards.

The Mississippi State Board of Education has adopted and is overseeing the rollout of new Common Core State Standards for Language Arts and Math. The first year of implementation is the 2013-2014 school year, this year.

In the 2013-2014 school year students will again take the Mississippi Curriculum Tests (MCT2) for language arts and math in the lower grades, and the Subject Area Tests (SATP) for English, Math, Science and History in high school. In the 2013-2014 school year, students will also take new Common Core assessment tests, but this year only the MCT2 and SATP will be used to assess school and district performance under the Accountability regulations. In the 2014-2015 school year students will no longer take MCT2, but rather will take the new Common Core assessment tests.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the label that has been given to the agreement among 45 states to create a national curriculum in English, Language Arts, Math, Science and History. The stated goalis that a K-12 education in any state will be the equivalent of a K-12 education in any other state; in short: national standards for public education curricula.

The central value in the Common Core framework is to enable students to move from rote learning to critical thinking, from memorization of information to analysis and manipulation of information. The goal is to teach students how to think and to adapt the use of information to new situations, rather than for students to memorize what the answers ought to be on standardized tests.

As a result there will be an emphasis on the students learning to explain in writing what they are trying to say, how the students arrived at their conclusions (or solved the problems), and for the students to be able to explain what they mean so that others can understand.

This new emphasis will put a lot of strain and pressure on students to do things they have not been expected to do in the past, with skills and tools many of them were not expected to learn in the past. This same strain will be placed on teachers, who will be expected to enable students to step up to the new expectations in situations where many of the students and the teachers are unprepared and unsure how best to proceed.

Administrators who are responsible for overseeing this process are also new to the process and often untrained in how to deliver the new curriculum and, therefore, uncertain about how best to monitor, supervise and provide professional supports to teachers and students in this transition to a new standard for learning.

Teachers and administrators are supposed to go through meaningful training before, and as, the new curriculum standards are deployed. However, there is a considerable amount of skepticism among parents and teachers as to whether this has or will be done to the degree needed to provide students the supports they will need.

The MS Dept. of Education explains Common Core State Standards in more depth on its website.

Almost Half of MS 3rd Grade Students May Face Retention Due to Legislative Underfunding

November 18th, 2013

children at capitol children firstNovember 18, 2013, Jackson, MSNew data released by the MS Department of Education shows that approximately 44% of 3rd grade students may face retention under the new 3rd Grade Literacy Promotion Act

Data released by the MS Dept. of Education on MCT2 test data shows that during the past two years, 2012 and 2013, approximately 44% of 3rd grade students performed less than Proficient.

The MDE data raises the specter that when the new 3rd Grade Literacy Promotion Act takes effect for the 2014-2015 school year that almost half of 3rd grade students may face retention in the 3rd grade. See the table in the article which shows the 39 schools in 29 districts identified by the MS Dept. of Education with the highest percentages of students who scored less than Proficient.

At the heart of the 3rd Grade Literacy Promotion Law is the mandate that all Mississippi schools:

  • identify all students beginning in Kindergarten or 1st grade who are deficient in reading skills AND
  • provide each of these students with reading intervention by well-trained teachers or literacy coaches to ensure that by the 3rd grade these students can progress from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”.
  • Being able to read to learn is critical beginning in the 4th grade and is supposed to be a critical part of the standard to be used to assess promotion versus retention.

According to Florida proponents of the 3rd grade literacy gate who advised the MDE Task Force on Accountability, Florida received approximately $1 billion dollars in grants and new appropriations to fund the statewide Florida effort to provide literacy coaches to train teachers to be competent to teach literacy. Mississippi has grossly under-funded the program thus far, with little prospect that legislative leaders are willing to entertain funding this program with the funds necessary for it to succeed.

The working premise of the 3rd grade literacy program is that at present most kindergarten and elementary teachers do NOT know how to enable students to progress from learning to read to reading to learn. This premise was uncontested during the entire deliberations of the Task Force that considered the recommendation to enact the 3rd grade literacy gate.

There is no prospect at this time that a program will be rolled out that will provide all students with the supports mandated under the law. MDE states that they anticipate it will take 3 years to “train” all teachers in the state, while acknowledging MDE has only been able to employ one-third of the literacy coaches it sought: 24 of 75.

NEVERTHELESS, most 3rd grade students will be faced with the consequence of retention at the end of the 2014-2015 school year without receiving the supports mandated by the law.

If our very intelligent, knowledgeable legislators vote to seriously underfund the 3rd grade literacy gate; and understand that its mandates for supports and interventions cannot be properly and fully implemented without sufficient funding; but they continue to refuse to effectively fund this program and willfully retain the negative consequence of 3rd grade retention; isn’t it reasonable to conclude that these legislators are not so much interested in students “reading to learn” as they are motivated to retain students in the 3rd grade?

For some of our legislators the creation of a specter of systemic “3rd grade failure” is another way to:

  • disparage, devalue and diminish our traditional public schools in the eyes of parents and public officials AND
  • generate an atmosphere of despair and desperation among parents and public officials IN ORDER TO
  • build support for public funding of charter schools, virtual schools, and other privately-owned, privately-governed, publicly-funded education alternatives.

Helen Johnson, Southern Echo’s Education Coordinator, commented, “Legislators cannot chant the mantra of “it’s about the children” and wrap themselves in the flag of traditional public school reform, while at the same time design a 3rd grade literacy gate program, knowingly underfund it so as to doom the program to insufficient implementation, and thereby deny to students the literacy tools and skills they so desperately need.”