Last week, Mississippi First’s founding team, Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson, were named as finalists for the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership in Las Vegas, NV. The Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership is presented annually to a Teach For America alumnus whose work has led to significant and measurable systemic change on a broad scale in the last year. This year, there were three finalists named: Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools; Kevin Huffman, Tennessee State Commissioner of Education; and the Mississippi First team, Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson.

From the Beginning

Some might say the creation of Mississippi First, a nonprofit dedicated to education policy, started long before its launch in 2008. Sanford and Rachel met riding the school bus in elementary school over 20 years ago. They formed a friendship that would last beyond their years as public school students in Starkville, MS. As time passed, their paths continued to cross. They both became teachers in the Mississippi Delta, and later they both went to school to study public policy—Rachel at the Harvard Kennedy School and Sanford at the Clinton School for Public Service. While they share many experiences, their strongest commonality is that they both have a deep desire to improve education in their home state. This desire led Rachel and Sanford to the idea of Mississippi First.

The First 5 Years

In 2008, Rachel and Sanford founded Mississippi First (MSF) as a nonprofit organization dedicated to moving Mississippians forward through education reform. They launched the website in December 2008 to provide information about education reform and policy work in Mississippi. In March 2009, Mississippi First officially formed its first Board of Directors. Also that year, MSF joined the PIE Network in order to receive support in the process of education advocacy at the state level. In 2010, Mississippi First played a major role in helping the Mississippi Department of Education apply for the new School Improvement Grants program, which brought Mississippi $47M in grants for low performing schools. Also, in 2010, MSF took a lead role in improving access to sex education by developing the CHART (Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens) Initiative. CHART works to reduce teen pregnancy, improve teen sexual health, and increase responsible decision-making.  During these first few years, Mississippi First was working diligently on issue education and advocacy for state-funded preK and charter schools. In 2013, this work came to fruition. The Mississippi Legislature passed the Mississippi Public Charter Schools Act , which was based on recommendations from MSF. The Legislature also passed the Early Learning Collaborative Act of 2013, modeled after a report published by Mississippi First titled, “Leaving Last in Line.” That summer, Mississippi First received two capacity grants to expand their work in Mississippi. The organization added 3 new staff members by January 2014: a Deputy Director of Policy, a Director of Communications, and a Teen Health Policy Coordinator.

The Future

Mississippi First continues to grow its capacity to make an even larger impact on the state. Over the next few years, Mississippi First hopes to expand access to quality sex education and health services for young people, expand access to quality preK, and build a high-quality charter school sector in Mississippi. The organization is also working to identify new policies that will help Mississippi move closer to ensuring an excellent education for every Mississippi child.

Mississippi First is a 501c3 public policy non-profit specializing in education reform. MSF has been involved in developing Mississippi’s charter school and preK policies, informing the public about Common Core State Standards, and assisting with implementing evidence-based sex education. For more information about Mississippi First, visit or contact Director of Communications MacKenzie Stroh at 662.743.4055. 

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