DeSoto County, despite having one of the top-performing public school districts in the state of Mississippi, still has students who, for whatever reason, are not reaching their full academic and/or character potential.
With support from a non-profit initiative of the county Rotary Clubs, two new programs will be started later this fall at three of the DeSoto County Schools (DCS) campuses to help close that gap.
A fundraiser dinner has been planned with featured speaker Walt Grayson of Mississippi Public Broadcasting to spearhead a public support for the effort. The dinner will take place Tuesday, Aug. 14, starting at 6:30 p.m., and will be held at Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center in Olive Branch.
Called Rotary Family Youth Initiative, or FYI, the Rotary Clubs of Hernando, Olive Branch and Southaven are combining to raise funds to start a program called Peer Power at Southaven High School, along with another program called The Leader in Me at Horn Lake and Olive Branch intermediate schools.
The vision is to bring the program to more schools in the future as the need is discovered and funding becomes available.
Peer Power is a program based in Memphis that is contracting with Rotary FYI to train teachers and high-achieving academic students to mentor selected Southaven High School classmates.
“Peer Power will put together a program for mentoring, whether it be history, biology or math,” said Bob Bickley, Rotary FYI president. “The mentoring students will get paid to do that and the teachers will get a little something extra because they do this outside their job. Peer Power sets the program up and gets the kids mentoring.”
According to its website, Peer Power “is a non-profit organization that recruits and trains high-performing students to tutor and mentor their peers, encourage active learning, value education and be personally accountable for their futures.”
Bickley points out that because the program is about students helping students, better grades are the result.
“When the student they are mentoring gets to know their classmate, they start emulating that student,” Bickley said. “They want to be a better student and they want to get better grades and the juvenile justice issues disappear.”
An example of what has happened with the Peer Power program is at Whitehaven High School in Memphis, which in 2017 posted the highest graduation rate of any Memphis public high school at 91.7 percent. Eighty percent of that class were college bound and the senior class earned $130 million in scholarship money.
“When they started at Whitehaven, the school had a 72-percent graduation rate,” Bickley said.
“We’re hopeful that kids will have better self-esteem,” added P. Carson Culver, part of the FYI committee. “They want more for themselves, they graduate, stay local and build a quality workforce here because they see a future for themselves.”
The Leader in Me is another program aimed more at the intermediate age students who are struggling, said Bickley. The program teaches leadership and life skills to students based on the belief that every child can be a leader.
The program is based on a book by Stephen Covey titled, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“They take the teachers and have a training program. It is not a cheap program, it is expensive. The program works with Covey representatives in what they need to do. The teachers produce the program in the classroom or after school for students that want it.”
The schools where the programs are being injected this year were chosen by Supt. Cory Uselton, Bickley and Culver pointed out, who added the efforts are aimed to address issues many people may not know about among DeSoto County young people.
“We have a huge drug and crime problem in DeSoto County,” said Bickley. “Through education and these programs, we have learned that through quality education cut off a lot of the juvenile justice problem. It begins with mentoring and The Leader in Me.”
Uselton, who will be among the speakers at Tuesday evening’s fundraiser, has endorsed the programs that are being done without district money. The programs are being initiated with support from the DCS Board of Education.
Walt Grayson, the keynote speaker for the evening, is the host of public broadcasting’s Mississippi Roads program, involved in local television in Jackson, an author and member of the Mississippi Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Tax deductible contributions to support the programs can be made to: Rotary FYI DeSoto County, P.O. Box 1894, Southaven, MS 38671.
Ticket information on Tuesday’s dinner is available by contacting Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. The group also have a Facebook presence by searching “Rotary Family Youth Initiative.”
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.