Public Advocacy: Missouri's Bright Futures

By Nora Carr

Nearly half of all schoolchildren attending U.S. public schools now live in poverty, a rate not seen since the 1960s, according to the Southern Education Foundation. These trends are particularly noticeable in the South and the West, where 53 and 50 percent of public school students are considered low income.

A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that poverty now outstrips race as the best predictor of college attendance and completion -- a first for the U.S., where race and ethnicity typically generate the most oppression and align most with the worst outcomes.

Confronted with a 61 percent poverty rate among its students and troubling high school dropout rates of 20 percent to 25 percent, Missouri’s Joplin Public Schools hired a new superintendent -- C.J. Huff -- and charged him with turning things around.

Even before the 2008 recession, the region had been hard hit by job loss, depressed wages, and overseas outsourcing as the community’s once-thriving mining operations shut down.

Facing his community’s deeply rooted cultural legacies that placed little value on higher education and accepted high dropout rates as the norm, Huff knew educators couldn’t do the job alone. To get parents and extended family members more in sync with the demands of the new global economy, he was going to need help -- and lots of it.

A strong believer in community collaboration, Huff convened a forum of leaders from business, the faith community, and human service agencies in April 2010. The superintendent dubbed the meeting Bright Futures.

The 7,600-student district nestled in southwestern Missouri invited 200 local leaders. More than 150 showed up. “We told a lot of stories about our kids, and what they were going through,” says Huff. “We needed them to understand what was happening in our own community.”

What started out as an opportunity to inspire community action regarding low high school graduation rates soon turned into a public school revival meeting. Initially hoping to come away with a handful of well-placed volunteers willing to tackle the fledgling project, district officials were amazed when
47 community leaders offered to assist. 

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