A Mississippi School Striving for Excellence

“I am so happy to be here. I have so many opportunities. I am so fortunate.”
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MSMS teacher Chuck Yarborough leading his class in a debate about African-American history. (Photos by Deborah Fallows)
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Introduction: Today the New York Times has a story by me about the reporting trip my husband and I have been taking to smaller communities across the country that have been coping with economic, political, or environmental challenges. In many towns I have found interesting and impressive schools to learn about, often at odds with the prevailing narrative of public schools failing across the board.

Some previous examples: the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont; the Grove School in Redlands California; the Shead School in Eastport, Maine; several English immersion schools in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina; the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, also in Greenville; and (by my husband) the Camden County High School near St. Marys, Georgia. This report is about one more of these schools, in Columbus, Mississippi.


One warm and misty May morning in Columbus, Mississippi, the lobby of the classroom building at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was full of teen-agers milling about, waiting for morning classes to begin. 

In one corner of the glassy space was a grandfather clock, probably about 8 feet tall, constructed by one of the students out of brightly colored plastic pieces. (Right.) On the hour, a little white ball would roll down a chute, tripping levers to ring a small chime. Upstairs in one of the science rooms was a 3-D printer, a rough-and-ready contraption that, with a little more luck,  is approaching the final stages of actually printing something. Another of the students, a senior, had made it himself. I recognized several other students whom I had seen performing in an after-school stage production, one dressed as Eco-Man in blue and green tights, cape, and mask.

MSMS is a public boarding school in Columbus, occupying a few of the more modest buildings on the grounds of the elegant Mississippi University for Women, is called “The W”. The men who have enrolled at The W since it became co-ed, say they always have a time explaining themselves to those not in the know.

The campus of "The W."

Columbus is a small town of about 25,000 people midway down the state, near the border with Alabama. Many of the buildings on the main streets are under renovation, and some of the antebellum homes are still occupied by the families who built them. The 228 students at MSMS this year, all juniors and seniors, come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, and computer courses, as well as a rich selection of arts and humanities.

When I visited MSMS recently, I asked some of the students what they liked about their school and how it was different from the schools they came from.

A black girl from a nearby town, even smaller than Columbus, said that her high school was all black, and she appreciated being in a diverse environment. A white girl from a larger town in the south of the state said that her school, a private school, had been all white, and she appreciated being in a diverse environment. “My roommate is from India,” she said, “I had never met someone from India before.”  A black boy from Columbus said his high school had been somewhat mixed, but it was really all about football. He said he appreciated being in a place where football didn’t dominate everything.  And they all talked about opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.

At MSMS, 27 percent of the students are black; 18 percent are Asian; 11 percent are mixed; 44 percent are white. Students find their way here from all over Mississippi, from big towns like Hattiesburg and small ones you can barely find on a map. The admissions recruiters fan out all over the state, working particularly hard in the impoverished delta region. While I heard that sometimes their reception is enthusiastic, other times—when there can be dismay at draining some of the best and brightest from a school or when there is a perception that their own school isn’t good enough—the reception is less welcoming.

Selling the school to Mississippi parents—even a school that regularly sends state champion teams to national science fairs and scoops up half the writing awards in the state—can sometimes be hard. Several students told me that their moms were scared, or nervous, or didn’t want them to go away. And the students themselves said they had to abandon extracurriculars that were important to them at home, but weren’t available at MSMS. But those were always a warm-up to their feelings now: “I am so happy to be here. I have so many opportunities. I am so fortunate.”

Architectural models in a history class.

I set out to visit some of the classes.  A dozen or so students in the robotics class were testing the robots they built for an upcoming national competition.  There were 3 robot missions: search-and-rescue; a mock sumo-wrestling match; and a bell lift, where the robot scooped up a bell and delivered it to a destination.

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Deborah Fallows is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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