For years, the City of Tupelo, Mississippi, and the surrounding region have been plagued by severe poverty, with a weakly funded public school system and little hope for economic development. As of 1981, the per pupil expenditure in the Tupelo School System was ranked 60th out of 150 school districts in Mississippi, a state already notorious for poorly funded public education. Without adequate funding, the Tupelo schools could not provide its residents with the educational opportunities they needed in order to effectively compete in a progressively more competitive and technological global market. Increasing school funding appeared to be the most practical approach to lifting the community out of its overwhelming destitution.
No one in Tupelo understood the importance of a high-quality education more than George McLean, the publisher of The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. In 1972, George McLean along with Jack Reed, a local businessman and State Board of Education Chairman, founded CREATE Inc., a nonprofit charitable organization that acts as a funding mechanism, channeling private resources into a wide range of educational programs. Very soon other private organizations were established across Tupelo with goals that mirrored those of CREATE, generating a comprehensive network of programs and services that addresses the full range of needs of children from preschool level through graduation and beyond. By incorporating businesses and private investors, nearly every member of the Tupelo community developed a vested interest in ensuring quality public education.
The increased funding has had a dramatic impact on the Tupelo community, allowing parents and citizens to establish innovative services that tackle a broad array of problems. The programs address the causes of poverty and educational underachievement rather than simply treating the symptoms. The private funding comes primarily from CREATE and the Association for Excellence in Education (AEE), with AEE raising in excess of $100,000 per year. The services that AEE provides include supplying schools with textbooks and computers, developing Academic Teams for statewide competitions, offering in-service training for teachers, and running gifted programs and tutorial services. Once the privately funded programs demonstrate their effectiveness, the City provides funding to incorporate them as a permanent feature. Through the Quality Leap Forward Program, the City has granted an additional $885,000 to education endeavors, focusing their efforts on hiring more teachers in math, science, and English, providing a merit pay plan for principals, and introducing department chair recognition for outstanding teachers. Concentrating on social problems, the H.O.P.E. program consists of comprehensive Community Health Education and Dropout Prevention Project, which incorporates parenting education and teenage pregnancy prevention. H.O.P.E. also organizes the Community Resource Committee to mobilize volunteers across Tupelo.
As of 1987, Tupelo's per pupil expenditure had increased to be ten percent higher than the State average, and the greater funding has led to marked gains in student achievement. Scores by Tupelo High School students on the American College Test (ACT) have risen from a full point below the national average in 1983 to .7 above the national average in 1987. Over half the participants in AEE's Tutorial Program have shows an increase in numerical grades, while nearly 30 percent have improved at least one letter grade in either mathematics or biology.
As hypothesized, economic development has followed the educational improvements. In 1987, the Tupelo area was able to attract 37 percent of the State's manufacturing industry, and the City placed fourth in sales tax revenues despite being only tenth in size in the State. As long as Tupelo maintains investment in its educational system, more and more new businesses and industries will be attracted to area, and the City will continue to prosper.