The state investigation into possible fraud in grants given from the Department of Human Services to the Mississippi Community Education Center in Jackson may have killed off a program that helped high school students get a diploma and kept dropout rates lower in local school districts.

The investigation also includes the Tupelo-based Family Resource Center of Northeast Mississippi.

MCEC and FRC jointly ran an initiative called Families First for Mississippi, which offered a variety of services statewide, including parenting and literacy classes and budgeting and financial planning classes.

Families First also offered an online school option for students who had difficulties passing classes required to graduate, or who had problems passing the state-mandated tests in courses — Algebra I, Biology I, English II and U.S. History — required to graduate.

Students would remain on their home campuses and take most of their classes from local teachers, but take the problem class online from Families First’s service, which was pitched to South Pike as New Summit in 2018 and to Walthall County as New Horizons in 2019.

Students taking courses through the Families First program would be transferred to the school to graduate, getting the student a diploma and removing the student from the home district’s student count and dropout rate.

Then, as a private-school enrollee, the student no longer has to pass the tests required of public school students.

The school was operated as part of the New Learning Resources School District operated by MCEC. The district also included brick-and-mortar New Summit schools in Jackson, Greenwood and Hattiesburg, as well as Oxford University School, Spectrum Academy for children with autism disorders in Jackson, and Mississippi Dyslexia Centers in Jackson.

MCEC and FRC still have active websites, but the Families First website disappeared last week, then returned with nothing but sponsored links to various services.

Rochelle Collins, South Pike’s federal programs coordinator, and Dr. Bradley Brumfield, Walthall County’s curriculum coordinator and assistant superintendent, said neither district had any students enrolled in the program this year.

“We had some students who used the program before, but not this year,” Collins said.

South Pike officials learned about the program in spring 2018. Walthall County was pitched the program in spring 2019, but not in time to have any students take advantage of it.

Brumfield said the apparent demise of the program this year — if it has, indeed, ended — probably did not leave any students in the lurch, since testing requirements for this year’s graduates were suspended after schools were closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But he believes it was the investigation that led to the program’s seeming end.

“I think the impact came primarily from the embezzlement investigation, not from COVID, but that’s just me,” Brumfield said.

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