One of the most powerful books I’ve read is one by Malcom Gladwell entitled “Outliers.” Gladwell is the author of five New York Times best sellers. This particular book focuses on the concept of why certain organizations or groups of people succeed more than others and what common characteristics led to their success. When I read The Pine Belt News article dated Aug. 19, 2020 (“Hattiesburg Named Mississippi’s Most Educated City”), it made me reflect on the success of the entire Pine Belt area during my lifetime and the impact that education has played as a part of this success.
I have lived in and around the Pine Belt area since the summer of 1971 when my father was assigned to a local church in Lamar County by the conference of the Mississippi United Methodist Church. During my elementary and high school career he went on to serve several different congregations mostly in Forrest and Lamar counties. Unlike most Methodist preacher’s kids, I was able to stay in one general area while growing up. When I was about to begin college, he and my mother were moved to the Jackson area, but I decided to stay to attend college in the Pine Belt and have continued to make it my home since that time. It has truly been a blessing to live, work and raise a family in the Pine Belt area because of the multiple great communities we have here. One of the main reasons, in my opinion, that the Pine Belt has remained so strong and really is an “Outlier” to our state is the fact that our area has multiple educational opportunities. This, no doubt, led to the distinction of being the most educated city by Insurify of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, Mississippi is not known for our success in education. U.S. News and World Report ranks our state 46th in education. While this ranking is not what we want, our state is making progress. Mississippi was ranked first in the nation in 2019 on gains made in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which compares our students to others around the country using a common assessment instrument. Hopefully, with that kind of progress we will continue to move up from 46th. The ranking of 46th, however, is not indictive of the educational opportunities and success of what is available in the Pine Belt making us a true “Outlier.”
In the Pine Belt you have successful public and private options for children in K-12. Two of our districts have achieved the highest accountability rating possible by the Department of Education. We have one of only two agricultural high schools in the state located in our area, and every school, both public and private, have achieved success both academically and in extracurricular activities with many state championships to their credit. All of the districts are partnering with local community colleges and/or universities to offer college credit to their students while they are still in high school, and one of our districts was named to the Forbes list as one of our state’s best employers. In addition to a wide range of success and options in the K-12 educational setting, residents in the Pine Belt can choose to further their education at the next level with many different excellent choices. We have arguably two of the nation’s best community colleges and two successful universities – one public and one private – from which to choose.
During my 35-year career in education I’ve had the opportunity to serve one of these K-12 districts as superintendent and to also serve on the Board of Trustees for one of the community colleges. Now, I am fortunate to continue my work in education as a vice president at one of the two local universities. Having close knowledge of these institutions and being close to many of the leaders from the other institutions, I can easily say that none of our schools, K-12 or colleges, are perfect. All have room for improvement, and all are constantly seeking ways to improve. Although they are not perfect, it is obvious that the educational opportunities everyone in the Pine Belt has is one major reason I feel we can be considered an “Outlier.”
A quote I’ve often heard is that “good schools make good communities.” I would take that one step further and say you can’t have a good school without a good community.
It simply isn’t possible.
We probably will never know if good schools or good communities came first in the Pine Belt, but I can assure you that they go hand in hand, and we are blessed to have both.
By the grace of God, literally, I have spent close to 50 years as a resident of the Pine Belt.
I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to live in a place that values all facets of the community.
Dr. Ben Burnett of Hattiesburg is executive vice president and dean of the School of Education at William Carey University. Write him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.