Hank Bounds and the Neverending Story

Hank Bounds brought his bugle to town last week, sounding reveille to business, education, church, and community leaders.

It was déjà vu all over again.

Or is it the neverending story?

The IHL Commissioner didn’t trumpet the universities he oversees. Instead, he talked of challenges more related to his old job as State Superintendent of Education.

“We must think differently about how students are prepared,” he said. America has fallen behind 20 or so countries in educational rankings, he noted, and Mississippi ranks near the bottom in America.

Bounds pointed to the state’s long-term poverty and low-income status. “Children who grow up in poverty learn 20 million fewer words” than those who do not, he said. That’s because “80% of brain development occurs during the first four years of life.”

The problem, according to Bounds, is the scarcity of learning activities that poor children get exposed to during their first years of life: “Poor families don’t know what to do for their children.”

“Students who cannot read proficiently by the third grade are exponentially more likely to drop out and to go to prison,” he said. “What are we going to do differently to change outcomes?”

His call to action was for the community, churches, educators, and businesses to take this problem seriously and do something about it.

Boy, that sounds familiar.

Thirteen years ago a diverse, 45-member team of community leaders staged a televised kick-off to start a major initiative to tackle these same problems.

“Poverty and eroding family support are two of many reasons that children enter school unready for learning,” said the regional health officer.

“We must turn this trend around,” said the university’s Social Work professor. “This is not a school problem, it is a community problem.”

“You really cannot separate business success from school success,” said the philanthropic foundation chairman.

“Decide to make it happen,” said the local businessman.

The Ford Foundation and The Phil Hardin Foundation poured funds into the initiative. Early childhood development experts Dr. Craig Ramey and Dr. Cathy Grace came and helped. The television station aired four primetime town meetings on the issue.

So what happened?

What started with such pizzazz fizzled. The real work to implement change proved difficult and time consuming. Leaders left. Newer initiatives stole the community’s passion. Some good things were accomplished, but the plight of children growing up underprepared in poorer homes was hardly diminished.

So, for us codgers Bounds’ trumpeting was déjà vu all over again. And, the notion of trying again, daunting.

Still, rearing children so they can succeed in life should be a neverending community story. Seems like it must become a neverending effort too.

Thanks for the wake-up call, Hank.

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