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Stories Written by Chris Kieffer
By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – During her first year leading Mississippi’s school system, Carey Wright has spoken often about the need to expand early-childhood education in the state.
On Friday, the state superintendent of education noted a couple of efforts to bring in outside dollars to help with that effort. That includes forming a foundation to support pre-K in Mississippi and applying for a federal grant that could net as much as $60 million.
“I really believe early childhood is a secret that is going to really change the trajectory of education in Mississippi,” Wright said while meeting with the Daily Journal’s editorial board on Friday. She also spoke to Tupelo’s Kiwanis Club and toured the Tupelo Public School District’s pre-kindergarten program.
Wright will pitch the new foundation next month to about 60 Mississippi philanthropic individuals and businesses through the Mississippi grantmakers association. It would seek a holistic approach, such as coupling pre-K classrooms with health services or supports for teenage mothers.
Meanwhile, the state will apply in October for a U.S. Department of Education early education grant that could provide $15 million a year for four or five years.
Those funds would supplement the $6 million Mississippi currently spends on early childhood education for two programs – a grant program that provides funds to collaborative community pre-K efforts and Mississippi Building Blocks, which helps private centers improve their quality.
Wright said the best approach for improving pre-K in the state is through a partnership between private programs, Head Starts and public pre-K. <note> </note>She noted she would like to see an expansion of school-based centers, like the one in Tupelo.
“It is an absolute jewel that is hidden,” she said. “It is exactly what we want for all 3- and 4-year-olds in our state.”
Wright also spoke on Friday about:
• Her support for the Common Core State Standards and the new tests students will take on those standards, produced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
Mississippi schools and teachers have been working since 2010 to begin teaching the Common Core, which are new guidelines for what skills students should master in math and language arts. This will be the first year the state’s students are tested on them.
However, Gov. Phil Bryant in June called the standards “a failed program” and noted that the Legislature may consider taking action related to them next year.
That would be a mistake, Wright said, noting she has met with the governor about that.
“The State Board and I have been very firm in our stance in continuing the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the use of the PARCC assessment,” she said.
“…The standards are incredibly elegant and incredibly rigorous. We cannot go back to our old standards. Those have already been evaluated by outside evaluators and the message that we are getting back is that they are deficient. We know that Common Core has been evaluated by a number of eyes and a number of professional organizations and we know that the standards are incredibly rigorous.”
Speaking on the PARCC tests, Wright said she supports them because Mississippi has had a central role in helping to develop them.
• Efforts to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula Mississippi uses to determine how much money it provides to districts.
Two separate efforts are addressing the repeated underfunding of the formula – one through a lawsuit and another through a proposed constitutional amendment. Wright said the Mississippi Department of Education is not involved in either effort but that full funding is important.
“We know that our schools need to be fully funded,” she said. “It is hard when you are dealing with the lack of literacy children are coming to school with and you have to have the kinds of materials all of our students need and you need money to do that.”
• The need to help more high school students across the state to take dual enrollment and Advanced Placement classes, which are more rigorous and can allow students to earn college credit.
Wright said the cost of dual enrollment courses with various colleges and community colleges varies, and the state may need to consider a policy with a standardized cost to ensure all students are able to afford the courses.
She also said it must look at ways to offer such courses virtually so students in rural areas can have access to them.
TUPELO – A group of Lee County teachers spent much of last week learning techniques that could help them better teach reading.
Michele Wenger from the Institute for Multi-sensory Education visited the district from Cincinnati, Ohio, to lead the 30-hour training session. It was attended by 30 teachers, including all of the educators in the district’s Reaching Reading Success program and 13 kindergarten to second-grade classroom teachers.
“The multi-sensory approaches they are learning will provide fun ways to engage students,” said Leslie Iverson, one of the school district’s two Title 1 Lead teachers. “It also involves a lot of repitition so kids get a lot of practice with what they are learning.”
The Reaching Reading Success program is an intervention for students who struggle with reading. It falls under the district’s Title 1 umbrella.
The so-called Orton-Gillingham techniques incorporate eyes, ears and hands into reading instruction. One activity Wenger showed the educators involved having students hear a sound and trace the appropriate letter into a tray filled with two different types of sand.
Ashley Jarrett, who teaches Reaching Reading Success at Saltillo Primary, said the training reinforced many of the things they are already doing in the program. It also gave her some new ideas.
“It has been good to see it from someone else’s perspective,” she said.
Iverson said it was good to bring both the intervention teachers and classroom teachers together so they could share ideas.
“Reaching Reading Success has used Orton-Gillingham approaches for years,” she said. “We have seen great success with it. We know it will help all students.”
Shelley Warrington, a first-grade teacher at Shannon Primary, said it was helpful to see examples of how the techniques could be used in her classroom.
“Every child learns differently so you teach to different modes and find a way to reach each one,” she said.
By Chris Kieffer
Fourteen Mississippi school districts filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court on Thursday demanding full funding of the state’s schools.
The suit was filed by the MAEP Legal Group, which includes former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. It seeks for those 14 districts – including Okolona, Prentiss County and Clay County in Northeast Mississippi – to be repaid a total of about $115 million that they have been underfunded since Fiscal Year 2010 under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
That is the formula the state uses to determine how much money each school district should receive for operating costs. Under it, property-poor school districts receive a greater percentage of state funds for such basics as teacher and staff salaries and maintenance. It has been fully funded only twice and has been underfunded by about $1.5 billion since Fiscal Year 2010, including $255 million for the current school year.
The lawsuit seeks not only to recover back funds for participating districts, but also to obtain a court injunction forcing the Legislature to fully fund the formula in the future.
Other complainants include the Clarksdale, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Leake County, Richton, Simpson County, Smith County, Tate County, Wayne County, West Tallahatchie and Wilkinson County school districts. The suit allows other Mississippi school districts up to 30 days to join.
Among the three Northeast Mississippi complainants, Prentiss County is owed about $8.2 million, Okolona $2.4 million and Clay County $644,000. Efforts to reach superintendents of each of those three districts for comment were unsuccessful.
“School districts cannot live without this funding, and local districts are being forced to raise local taxes to try to make up for the money that is being held hostage in Jackson,” Musgrove said in a press release. “We hope to get as much money back as possible for every school district. We hope to make education a top priority in Mississippi again. We hope to create opportunity for everyone in Mississippi. The only way to do that is to legally force the state to fully fund education.”
As lieutenant governor in 1997, Musgrove played a key role in steering MAEP’s passage. He served as governor from 2000 to 2004.
“Funding for education in Mississippi has been my life’s work,” Musgrove said in the release. “Watching that law being rendered meaningless by legislative leadership who choose not to fund education, even when the state has the money, is heartbreaking.”
In recent weeks, Musgrove has discussed the lawsuit with school districts throughout the state. It claims that a 2006 law signed by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour mandates full funding by use of the word “shall.”
“It is disappointing to me that Ronnie Musgrove is using education as a pretense to get rich at the expense of the Mississippi taxpayers,” Gov. Phil Bryant told The Associated Press in a statement, warning that successful suits could force the state to raise taxes.
The lawsuit is different than the “Better Schools Better Jobs” group that aims to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2015 ballot that it says would ensure full funding of schools.
That initiative would require a percentage of state revenue growth to be dedicated to MAEP until it was fully funded.
The Better Schools, Better Jobs group has been critical of Musgrove’s potential lawsuit, saying it could negatively impact its initiative effort. Its members also have criticized the contingency fees the MAEP Leagal Group’s attorneys would receive.
Those fees were determined by a sliding-scale cap for such fees that is set into state law, Musgrove said. A calculation by The Associated Press determined they could be as high as $27.8 million.
“This lawsuit is not the way to go and is very unfortunate,” Claiborne Barksdale, the retired CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute and a member of Better Schools Better Jobs, said on Thursday. “Millions of dollars will go into Ronnie’s and other lawyers’ pockets instead of into schools. The irony is striking. The constitutional referendum is by far the best way to attack the underfunding issue – a permanent, conservative, constitutionally grounded approach with broad public backing.”
Musgrove has said the initiative would not guarantee full funding of MAEP.
“I’m open to any action that increased funding for education in Mississippi,” he said in July. “The proposed lawsuit is the only effort to try to recover funds that the school districts are owed and need to pay expenses.”
Bobby Harrison contributed to this story.
By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – The Junior Auxiliary of Tupelo on Thursday officially kicked off another school year of serving students in Tupelo and Lee County.
The organization held its annual School Aid Luncheon at First Baptist Church in Tupelo. The event for counselors, school nurses, administrators and board members is an opportunity for JA to outline the programs it offers in the city and county school districts. It also is a way to honor educators for helping students, said Heather Wolfe, JA’s school aid chairwoman.
JA relies on school personnel to alert it to students in need of services, said Tami Young, president of Junior Auxiliary of Tupelo.
“You are the eyes and ears of our school aid committee, and our volunteers stand ready to help you in any way in responding to the physical, educational and emotional needs of our community,” Young said.
The organization provides clothing and school supplies and helps fund eye doctor visits and eyeglasses for children referred by school counselors and nurses. It also holds camps for rising seventh-grade students, stages anti-bullying plays, teaches CPR and character education classes and provides scholarships.
“It is comforting knowing there are people out there who care about children who are not their own and go the extra mile for them,” said Brittany Orr, counselor at Verona Elementary School.
Last year, JA provided clothing and school supplies to 465 children, toothbrushes to 500 children, Christmas gifts to 76 children and eye exams and eye wear to 34 children.
The percentage of students who passed state tests given to Mississippi high-schoolers fell slightly this year, according to data released Tuesday.
The state’s high school students take Subject Area Tests after completing algebra, biology, U.S. history and English-2. They must pass these tests in order to graduate.
Statewide, 83 percent of students passed the algebra test last school year, 80 percent passed in U.S. history, 78 percent in biology and 72 percent in English. The algebra rate fell by two percentage points, while the other three each dropped by about one point.
The Daily Journal on Tuesday published data for the math and language tests taken by third- to eighth-grade students last spring, as well as the science tests taken by fifth- and eighth-graders.
The high school test data had been scheduled to be released then too, but the original file sent to the media had inaccurate data. The Mississippi Department of Education released the corrected data on Tuesday morning.
Mississippi also saw declines on the tests taken by its elementary and middle-school students. Educators attributed some of that decline to the fact that those tests did not match the material students were studying. That’s because many schools had begun to teach the Common Core State Standards, new guidelines for math and language arts instruction, even though the tests were measuring the old Mississippi State Frameworks.
That would not have been the case for the high school tests, however. Since students need to pass those high-stakes tests in order to graduate, most schools would have still followed the old frameworks in those classes.
The data released by the MDE is at the schoolwide and districtwide level. It shows the percentage of students who scored in each of the four categories measured by the tests: minimal, from lowest to highest, basic, proficient and advanced.
The percentage of Mississippi high school students who scored at least proficient fell by three percentage points or fewer on three of the four tests. It remained flat on biology.
Several Northeast Mississippi school districts scored near the top of the state on the tests. Lafayette County and Tishomingo County each had passing rates that ranked among the top 15 districts – or top 10 percent – of the state on three of the four tests. Itawamba County, Houston and Booneville did so on two and Benton County, Chickasaw County, Amory, Oxford, Union County, Pontotoc County and Pontotoc City did so on one each.
Meanwhile, Booneville ranked in the top 15 on all four tests when looking at the percentage of students who scored at least proficient. Lafayette County did so three times, Oxford, Tishomingo County and Amory did so twice, while Itawamba County, Houston, North Tippah, Union County and Pontotoc County did so once.
Tupelo’s scores slightly declined on each of the four tests. However, the data was reported differently than it has been in the past. This year, it included all students who took the test at the school, while in other years, the data only has included those who were enrolled in the school for the entire length of the course.
“Overall, I was pleased with our scores, but we’re always striving to improve,” said Tupelo High Principal Jason Harris. “When you take this data into account with the other things MDE measures, I think we will be pleased when our labels are released.”
The Lee County School District improved its passing rate on U.S. history and English-2 and fell on algebra and biology. The percentage of students scoring at least proficient improved on biology.
“I’m very pleased with how our high schools scored,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks. “All of our schools showed growth. When you have good teachers and good students in your classroom, it definitely shows up in your test scores.”
Results from the tests, as well as student growth and graduation rates will be used to determine the A to F letter-grade that districts and schools receive. That information is expected to be released next month.
Because of the transition to Common Core, districts and schools also will be able to keep their 2013 grade, if it is higher.
By Chris Kieffer
Test scores fell across Mississippi this year, but the decline was expected.
That is because those tests did not match the material being taught in many classrooms. Schools across the state used last year to begin teaching the Common Core State Standards, new guidelines for math and language arts instruction that have been adopted by 43 states. Mississippi students will be tested on them for the first time this year.
To allow schools an extra year to prepare, the Mississippi Department of Education gave them flexibility to begin teaching the new standards last year. But students still were tested on the old Mississippi State Frameworks.
As a result, that test data, released today, does not carry the same meaning as it has in past years.
“The performance levels on state tests were lower this year as expected because the 2014 tests were not aligned to Mississippi’s higher academic standards,” State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said in a statement. “We are looking forward to implementing the state’s new assessments in 2015, which will provide a more meaningful measure of what students are currently learning in class.”
Scores were released today for language arts and math tests taken by third- to eighth-grade students last spring, as well as for science tests taken by fifth- and eighth-graders. It marked the final time students would take the Mississippi Curriculum Test, second edition.
In addition to tests taken by elementary- and middle-school students, high school students take state tests upon completing algebra, biology, U.S. history and English 2. They must pass those tests in order to graduate.
The MDE initially released that data too, but it had several inaccuracies. Corrected data was not available as of 8 p.m. on Monday.
The data provided is at the school-wide and district-wide level. It reports the percentages of students who scored in each of the four categories measured by the test: minimal, from lowest to highest, basic, proficient and advanced.
Statewide, the percentage of students scoring in the highest two categories declined on 11 of the 12 tests. The only place that saw improvement compared to last year was eighth-grade language. On that test, 56.6 percent of students scored at least proficient, compared to 54.5 percent last year.
Many of the declines were by four percentage points or fewer. Larger drops came in third-grade language and math and sixth-, seventh-and eighth-grade math. Third-grade language fell by 7.7 percentage points, with 50.9 percent of students scoring proficient. That was the biggest decline.
“Given the situation, our students were tested on something other than what they were taught, we knew our scores would be behind last year’s,” said Oxford Superintendent Brian Harvey. “Do they hold any value? Of course. But do they give the most accurate picture? No. It’s what’s needed to move forward.”
Lafayette County Superintendent Adam Pugh said his district was among those that used the waiver to have more time to prepare for Common Core.
“Just looking at the numbers, we didn’t do as well as last year, and to be honest, I hoped that what was taught would have translated better,” Pugh said. “However, the bottom line is it is difficult to gauge our performance because we weren’t teaching what was being tested….Testing is going to be way different this year, and we’re making every effort to align our teaching with the new standards. The main thing we’re focusing on is learning.”
Several Northeast Mississippi school districts ranked near the top of the state in the percentages of their students who scored proficient or better on the individual third- to eighth-grade tests. Pontotoc City Schools ranked among the top 15 districts in the state – or top 10 percent – on nine of the 12 tests, while New Albany did so on eight tests. Also in the group were Booneville (five tests), Union County (four tests), Clay County (four tests), Monroe County (three tests), Oxford (three), Tupelo (two), Prentiss County (two), Chickasaw County (two), Alcorn County (two), Amory (two), Lafayette County (one), Tishomingo County (one), Houston (one), Itawamba County (one), Pontotoc County (one) and Baldwyn (one).
“We’re looking forward,” said Itawamba County Superintendent Michael Nanney. “We looked at the scores, but we’re about to have a new structure, a new way of being held accountable, and our teaching is designed to meet those benchmarks.
“In the transition, we’re trying to keep resources available for our children and teachers, and using these tests, whatever they may be, as a tool to prepare our students for a quality future.”
The results from these tests will be used to determine school and district letter-grade rankings, which are expected to be released next month. They will have the option to keep their 2013 rankings if they are higher, however, because of the transition to the new standards.
Scores are expected to drop more next year when students begin taking more difficult tests on the Common Core.
Riley Manning also contributed to this story.
By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Test scores for the Tupelo and Lee County School Districts remained mostly flat this year.
Roughly the same percentage of students scored in the top two categories – proficient and advanced – this year as did last year when comparing the same test, such as seventh-grade language, for both years.
The results do not carry as much meaning as in past years, however, since the skills they measured were not exactly the same as the ones the schools were teaching. That’s because both districts took advantage of the state’s flexibility in allowing them to start using the Common Core State Standards.
Those are new guidelines for math and language arts instruction that have been adopted by 43 states. Mississippi students will be tested on them for the first time this year. In preparation, many districts began using them last year. The tests students took, however, were based on the old Mississippi State Frameworks.
“We are satisfied with how we did when you take into consideration we were tested on a curriculum we had not been teaching,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks.
Results released today are from math and language arts standardized tests taken last spring by third- to eighth-graders, as well as science tests taken by fifth- and eighth-graders. Data initially was released from state tests taken by high school students in algebra, biology, U.S. history and English-2. That data contained inaccuracies, however, and corrected data was not available as of 8 p.m. Monday night.
Both the Tupelo and Lee County School districts used last year a blended curriculum that included both the old frameworks and many requirements of the Common Core. Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said that the district’s curriculum included about 70 to 75 percent of the Common Core’s requirements.
“One of the positives of the scores is even though it is not aligned, we still did well,” Loden said. “Quality teaching and instruction and working hard with good kids will make a difference, even if it is not aligned.”
The data provided today is at the district-wide and school-wide levels. It shows which percentage of students scored in each of the four categories measured by the tests: minimal, from lowest to highest, basic, proficient and advanced.
Tupelo’s best gains were in fifth-grade math and language arts and in sixth- and eighth-grade language. Its biggest drops came in third-grade. That grade, however, was more focused on the Common Core standards than older grades, Loden said.
“It was the best decision,” Loden said of introducing the new standards last year even though it may have hurt test scores. “When we were told we would be held harmless for two years, we decided on a two-year plan, and we feel good about our plan.”
Lee County made slight gains in third-grade language and in fourth-grade math. Most of its declines were within two percentage points or fewer, with larger drops of about five percentage points in fourth-grade language and seventh and eighth-grade math.
“I feel it was the right move because in the long run, we did the right thing for kids,” Weeks said of last year’s transition. “We better prepared our students for the future.”
The test scores will be used to determine district and school letter-grade rankings, expected to be released next month. They will have the option to keep their 2013 rankings if they are higher, however, because of the transition to the new standards.
Those A to F letter grades will be determined by a new formula that the state developed last year. Loden said he has concerns about the formula. It does not give districts enough credit or incentive for pushing proficient students to become advanced, he said.
It also gives extra weight to how students in the bottom 25 percent perform. Loden said that could force districts to direct resources away from higher performers.
TUPELO – The Mississippi Department of Education will release this week the results from last school year’s state tests.
Those scores currently are scheduled to be published on Tuesday. They will show what percentage of students scored in each of the four categories – minimal, basic, proficient and advanced, from lowest to highest – for schools and districts across the state.
Third- to eighth-graders took tests in math and language arts during the spring, while fifth- and eighth-graders also took science tests. High school students take state tests upon completing algebra, English-2, U.S. history and biology. They must pass those tests in order to graduate.
Last spring’s tests were the last time elementary students will take the Mississippi Curriculum Test-2, which measured how well they were performing on the old Mississippi State Frameworks. This year, schools are instead using the Common Core State Standards, new guidelines for teaching math and language arts. They will take a new test on those standards in the spring.
Preparing for that switch, many schools focused more on the Common Core last year than they did on the state frameworks, meaning the skills measured by the tests were not necessarily the same as the ones schools were teaching.
As a result, this year’s test data will not mean as much to Mississippi schools as it has in the past.
The test data will be used to determine schools’ letter-grade rankings under a new state accountability model that was approved during the spring. Those labels will be released in mid-September.
Many schools will keep the same letter-grade they had last year, however. That is because the Mississippi Department of Education allowed them to freeze their ranking in order to be able to focus more on the Common Core. Districts and schools will be able to keep their 2012-13 ranking or take the one from this year, depending on which is higher.
By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Mississippi students now have an opportunity to be much more knowledgeable about money.
State Treasurer Lynn Fitch announced on Thursday a new initiative from her office that will provide online resources for the state’s schools to teach more about financial literacy. The Treasurer’s Education About Money, or TEAM, program will include lessons on such topics as credit scores, insurance, credit cards, taxes, investing, mortgages and savings.
“Our young people are afraid of money,” Fitch said in announcing the program at Renasant Bank. “They are afraid of how to handle their finances. We need to empower them.”
Fitch’s stop in Tupelo concluded a three-day, 16-stop statewide tour to announce the program. The computer-based lessons will be offered through the company EverFi and could be incorporated into a variety of courses. Teachers can have students work through them at school or could assign them as homework.
The program is available for free to public and private schools, thanks to a partnership between Fitch’s office and several sponsors. It initially will be for high schools, but Fitch said they hope to later expand it to elementary and middle schools.
“It will start students off at an early age with an opportunity to learn financial literacy,” said Robin McGraw, president, chairman and CEO of Renasant Bank, which is among the sponsors.
Tupelo Public School District Assistant Superintendent Diana Ezell said the program gives teachers another tool for teaching students about managing money.
“The more our students know about financial responsibility, the better prepared they are for the real world,” she said.As part of the initiative, the Mississippi Council on Economic Education will train teachers both on the EverFi program and on ways they can teach personal finance beyond the online lessons.
Fitch has spoken of her goal of improving the state’s financial literacy since she took office in 2012. On Thursday, she cited a report by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority that found Mississippi to be the least financially capable state in the country.
“That is unacceptable,” she said. “We have to change it.”
TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi is poised for growth, but that will require a broadly skilled workforce, a North Carolina-based nonprofit said on Tuesday.
MDC Inc., is studying ways Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties can produce graduates with the skills its employers demand and ways those graduates can be more aware of available careers. This week, it is providing updates on that effort, including a meeting for Lee County on Tuesday morning held at the CREATE Foundation’s office. Separate meetings were scheduled in Pontotoc and New Albany.
“This region has a lot of strengths we don’t always see in rural areas,” said Colin Austin, a senior program director with MDC. “The data is showing the economy is doing well, but you can see the impact of the CREATE Foundation over time in its ability to bring people together for new ideas. You can see the strengths of the community colleges, their relationship with industry and their ability to provide training and to be a training partner.”
Harnessing those strengths, Austin said, will require greater coordination and collaboration. Most of the region’s major employment sectors appear poised for job growth, he said.
The project is being funded by the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund, a $50 million endowment from Toyota to enhance education in the three counties that worked together to attract it to the region. MDC specializes in helping communities “close the gaps that separate people from opportunity,” its website says.
“We need to have a deeper understanding as a community of what the issues are related to career readiness and awareness and what the roles are of education, higher education, employers and families to develop a process to better educate our young people,” said CREATE President Mike Clayborne, who facilitates an advisory committee that oversees the endowment. “We need to see what systems and processes can be put in place to make a difference.”
MDC’s preliminary findings included the need to produce a pipeline of workers with broad skills and to better understand the needs and experiences of the emerging workforce. It also found:
• Schools see value in career readiness activities, but lack time and resources to carry them out in a systematic way.
• Several promising programs exist, but they are not coordinated and are not operating at significant scale.
• Employers are turning to community colleges on an individual basis rather than working together as industry sectors.
MDC has been working on the project since the spring – researching the workforce and education system; compiling an inventory of existing programs; analyzing data and interviewing employers, school and college leaders and local leaders. It also will interview high school students to get their perspective.
The organization also met on Tuesday with a 40-member leadership committee that included representatives of kindergarten to 12th-grade education, higher education and businesses. That committee will help shape the recommendations of MDC’s final report, to be presented in November.
That report will guide the Toyota Wellspring Advisory Committee as it determines its next actions to help develop the region’s workforce.
Another community forum will be held in New Albany today at 5:15 p.m. at the Magnolia Civic Center.