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This year’s class of 284 STAR students was honored Thursday during the Mississippi Economic Council’s Education Celebration at the Jackson Convention Complex.

The Student-Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) Program, sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Council and its M.B. Swayze Foundation, encourages scholastic achievement among the state’s high school students and recognizes outstanding teachers.

To receive a STAR, a student must be completing his or her last year of work at an accredited public or private high school or post-secondary institution and must be eligible to receive a diploma in the current school year. The student must have an overall ACT composite score of at least 25 and an overall average of 93 or above in selected subjects in the ninth, 10th, 11th, and first-semester 12th grades.

Morgan Dunnigan, a senior at St. Andrews Episcopal School in Ridgeland, is a 2017 STAR student.

“I scored a 35 on my ACT (one point shy of the top grade),” said Dunnigan, who plans to attend Davidson College in North Carolina to study economics this fall.

At a young age, Dunnigan became paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a spinal cord injury. One of her biggest criteria in searching for schools was accessible dormitories and institutions with flat lands to better use her wheelchair.

Each of the top 20 STAR Students — ALL-STAR Scholastic Scholars — received a $1,000 scholarship. The top three students this year are Andy Zhao of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, who received a $24,000 scholarship, Allen Yang Huang of Oak Grove High School, $20,000 scholarship, and Benjamin W. Roberson of Jackson Preparatory School, $16,000. Scholarships are provided by the Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Charitable Foundation Inc.

Each STAR student designates a elementary or secondary classroom teacher who has made the greatest contribution to the student’s scholastic achievement. ALL-STAR teachers receive $500 each; teachers selected by the top three students receive $1,000 each.

Vicki F. Shirley of Corinth Academic and Performance Arts High School and John Scott Applegate of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal School were named to the the STAR Hall of Fame, which honors teachers who have been named STAR Teacher 10 separate years. Seventy-six teachers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since 1985.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was a featured speaker at the Thursday’s event.

“We, Mississippi, can compete with anyone in the country, and in fact we can compete with anyone in the world, if given the opportunity,” he said as looked to the right and left of the dais, where Laura Lee Lewis, Miss Mississippi 2016, and Micheal Simeon, a contestant on the 13th and 14th seasons of American Idol contestant, sat.

Reeves challenged students to “keep in mind the values and to never let anyone put up roadblocks on their success.” He also encouraged students to give back to the community.

David Heath Slade, nominated by Wesley Roberts, is the STAR teacher at Mt. Olive High school. He teaches English and literature.

“It’s got its challenges but it’s worth it when you have kids like Wesley who step up,” said Slade. Wesley is the third consecutive STAR student to represent Mt. Olive High School, and Slade has been nominated each year. Before then, the school hadn’t been recognized in 10 years.

A lot of teachers talk to students as if they aren’t adults, said Slade. His approach has always been “here’s my take now give me your take.”

Mississippi and the nation have failed to show students why education matters, Slade said.

“Three years in a row we’ve seen the lieutenant governor get up and make a big speech,” Slade said. “However, every year I hear about the adequate education being cut.

“I encourage the state reps to do what they promise and to actually support education in this state.” 

This is the 52nd Student-Teacher Achievement Recognition Program.

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.