A million-dollar program in its first year at Oxford High School may soon revolutionize high schools across Mississippi.

The three-year program funded by the Mississippi Department of Education will, if successful, serve as a basis for the general redesign of the state's public high school system. One of four schools selected for the program, OHS will receive more than $170,000 for the 2005-06 school year and up to $1 million for the three years in which the pilot program will be in effect.

High schools "are done the same way as when grandmother was little," program co-coordinator Cynthia Ferguson said. "We are trying to change to better meet the needs of students."

The redesign is centered on what co-coordinator Tamsie West terms the three R's: rigor, relevance and relationships. The program targets the needs of a more challenging curriculum, stronger connections between the school and higher learning institutions and businesses, better support for struggling students and a more involved guidance program - all with an emphasis on student mentoring.

For many OHS students, the Student Mentoring, Advising and Resource teams, which meet Tuesdays and Thursdays during 20-minute intervals between second and third periods, will be the most recognizable faces of the redesign program.

According to Ferguson, the SMART teams consist of a faculty mentor and no more than 15 students and are designed so each student will have a teacher with whom to develop a personal relationship and receive guidance.

Before selecting which schools would receive the grant, the education department requested that high-achieving schools submit individual models for the redesign while focusing on the same core concepts.

"The previous mindset was We've always done it this way,'" West said about the educational system in place in most Mississippi schools. "It was designed for an agricultural society where (students) were taught a little of this, that and the other and then went and picked cotton. It does not work that way anymore."

A component that measures to deter dropouts is headed by a district coordinator who identifies and aids possible withdrawals. According to West, the major problem for students who do not finish school is that they do not have anybody looking out for them.

In the new program, "every child has an advocate - somebody who will go to bat for them," she said.

One school from each of Mississippi's four congressional districts was selected: OHS, Bay High School in Bay St. Louis, Northwest Rankin and Humphreys County.

It is still to be decided how the Department of Education will use the results of the pilots, but West speculates schools either will decide which of the four systems to incorporate or use a uniform program that melds the strengths of each.

Jake McGraw is editor-in-chief of the Oxford High School Charger.

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