“There is a great need for more virtual programs”

“Education going forward is no longer tied to your zip code.”

That’s what Booneville Superintendent Dr. Todd English sees lying ahead for education in Mississippi. Booneville is one of 11 school districts that hold a District of Innovation status.

Districts of Innovation are described by the state department of education as being given additional flexibility in several areas governed by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE).

Booneville received its designation five years ago and is up for renewal next year.

“We are in the planning stages of our new application now. Our original application was for seat time waivers, but we are looking at other waivers for this application. Ours is going to have something to do with virtual reality.”

Currently, Booneville has a robust virtual program in place. They offer courses and teachers to their own students as well as students from other districts.

“Under this model, every student has access to a certified teacher,” he said. “That’s something that isn’t the case in a lot of areas of the state. For example, finding a Spanish teacher is difficult in some places. We are able to offer that teacher through the virtual program to students in Booneville and around the state.”

Booneville has 360 students on campus and 1,000 non-Boonville students online, English noted. The non-Booneville students are from other districts, homeschool students, and some private school students as well.

“It’s the world we live in,” he said.

A course list approved by MDE is sent out to all the districts in the state.

“A counselor or principal in a district who has a student who needs one of our offered courses contacts us and enrolls their student,” English said. “They pay a small fee to take the class.”

With the District of Innovation designation, English said they are free to try things.

“There are not layers of bureaucracy to go through here,” he said. “We say ‘yes’ first. There may be reasons along the way that we have to change or not continue, but we don’t say ‘no’ to start.”

English added that parents are pleased with the innovation in the classroom.

“We are held accountable by the community,” he said. “The community accountability is far more stringent than MDE because it is immediate accountability. We have to sit on the pew with parents every Sunday.”

The virtual program was an invaluable tool as Mississippi schools were hit hard by the COVID pandemic.

“I think our state has seen the necessity of a virtual program. That experience has improved over the last six months out of necessity,” English said. “The question now for the state of Mississippi is how to we get better and how do we fill that need around the state?

“We are standing at the forefront of virtual education out of necessity now and Mississippi should be getting our ducks in a row on quality measures for virtual learning.”

What lies ahead for Booneville? English said as they are working on their District of Innovation application. It will be centered around some sort of virtual reality program.

“That is where we want to go,” he said. “We are just getting that off the ground. What we are seeing for a virtual reality program is a need for career and technical courses. It’s important that we give employers what they need from our graduates and being able to offer virtual reality programs where they get to see and hold what they are working on offers a whole new experience. Our students now are competing with students in Seattle and Silicon Valley for jobs. There is no limit to what they can do, and they can do it virtually and stay right here in Mississippi. It’s the only way to stop brain drain in Mississippi. We are sending kids out who are prepared to go to work in the remote world in which we live.”

As for the students, English said they are engaged and learning.

“In decades past we gave kids a fat pencil and paper and taught them how to write,” he said. “Today, kindergarteners have had some kind of device in their hands since birth. What we are doing is staying current and the kids love it.

“We are only limited by our own imagination in the world of education today. There is a great need for more virtual programs. That need has been expressed loudly not just in Mississippi but all over the nation.”