A struggling school undergoes a remake

By Chris Kieffer / NEMS Daily Journal

SHANNON – Last spring, the Lee County School District embarked on an ambitious attempt to improve Shannon Middle, one of its lowest-performing schools.
Because the school’s 2008-09 state test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Mississippi’s middle and high schools, the district was eligible to apply for a federal School Improvement Grant that could have netted $1.25 million annually for three years.
District officials studied test data, held focus groups for teachers, parents and community members and provided anonymous surveys to the same stakeholders.
They replaced the school’s principal, per the grant’s requirements, and devised innovative ideas for teacher bonuses, professional development and scheduling.
Then in June, they learned their grant request was denied.
District officials insist they’re still proceeding with efforts to improve the school.
Keith Steele, formerly the district’s assistant superintendent, will remain principal after last year’s principal, Ralph Green, became the principal at the district’s Belden Center.
The school has made changes to better separate it from neighboring Shannon High School and to increase the amount of time students spend each day on language arts instruction.
“Our commitment is the same,” Superintendent Mike Scott said. “We want for these kids the same things as we do for others in the district. We want success, and we want them to reach their full potential.”
As those efforts proceed throughout the year, two essential questions will be asked.
n Can the school be improved without the grant money?
n Can the momentum built during a failed grant attempt be as powerful as the grant itself?
Had the district won its grant bid, it would have implemented a new policy to provide the school’s teachers bonuses based upon student achievement. It would have also used the federal funds to provide intensive professional development, outside educational experts to work hands-on with teachers in their classrooms and an influx of technology to aid instruction.
Middle School Curriculum Coordinator Kathy Mask said that although the school will not get some of those desired tools, the plans generated during the grant-writing process also were important.
“We had some ideas come out of that,” Mask said. “We had to think creatively and think of different things to do, and we were able to implement some of those things.”
The district’s director of federal programs, Becky Hendrix, who worked with Mask for much of the grant process, said that the school still may be able to get some additional federal money.
Leaders already have begun applying to get federal Title-I dollars because of the socioeconomic status of their students. The school could get as much as $112,000, which it would use for instructional materials, library books, technology and professional development, among others.
Interviews with five of the school’s 22 teachers revealed that they all felt a growing momentum at the 270-student school, despite the failed grant request.
“Regardless of whether we got the grant or not, we are still working for the betterment of our students,” said seventh-grade language arts teacher Kathy Pippin.
First-year teacher Amy Hays, an alum of Shannon schools, said she can already tell that much is expected out of the school’s teachers and she’s also been impressed with the collegial atmosphere of the faculty.
Added literacy specialist Ashley Finch, who is in her eighth year at the school, “I feel like this is going to be one of our best years so far. I feel like we have a plan in every aspect, and we’re all on the same page.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.