By Chris Kieffer
ASHLAND – When Ashland High School received its state test scores last fall, the news was particularly crushing.
Despite much effort in Principal LaKimberly Hobson’s first year at the helm, the school received an “F” grade.
“We were all devastated,” Hobson said of those on the school’s staff. “…They saw me cry.”
The news could have stymied the school’s improvement efforts. Instead it sparked them.
“We said, ‘We’re going to do this,’” Hobson said. “We’ve come too far not to do what is right.”
One year later, the 179-student school earned a “B” grade. Improving by three levels in Mississippi’s accountability is rare. AHS is the only Northeast Mississippi school to do so in the last four years.
“When you are doing what we are doing, it is not easy and not comfortable,” said Benton County Superintendent Jack Gadd, who took office in January 2012. “…It is not going to be painless, but success makes it worth the whole trip.”
Ashland grew its Quality of Distribution Index – a formula based on how students score on their tests – by 29 points to a 160. In 2012, it missed being a “D” school by two points, and this year, it avoided being a “C” by one point. The graduation rate improved from 64.3 percent to 80.8 percent.
“Elation was all over the building,” algebra teacher Kathryne Wilbanks said of the day the scores were released.
“The students have always been able to do it,” said science teacher Bobby Kirk. “This helps them know they can do it.”
Ninety-three percent of the school’s students are black, and 95 percent quality for federal meal subsidies because of low incomes. Hobson and her 19-member staff set high standards, extending them also to parents and community members. That includes persistent phone calls, home visits and even church visits, she said.
“You can either choose to be successful or I’m going to drag you kicking and screaming into success,” she said. “…I force people to make education a priority.”
Meanwhile, the school district added a new program to better analyze students’ test data to see their specific strengths and weaknesses. That empowered teachers to be more specific with the lessons they delivered to individual students, Wilbanks and Kirk said.
“We didn’t want them to guess, we wanted them to know,” Gadd said.
Also important was an emphasis on training and supporting teachers, said Benton County Instructional Director Heather Linville. The district added a wide variety of after-school training sessions. It partnered with DeSoto County and Alcorn County school districts to offer sessions it could not have provided alone.
“For us it was prioritizing how we’d spend funds to invest in teachers,” Linville said. “We didn’t need a new program or equipment. We needed training for teachers to be able to use the programs they had.”
Meanwhile, Benton County’s other schools also grew. Ashland Elementary rose from an “F” to a “D,” and Ashland Middle remained a “C.” Hickory Flat improved its QDI by 15 points to go from a “C” to a “B.” Had Hickory Flat High School been graded separately than the rest of the K-12 campus, it would have received an “A.”
Hickory Flat Principal Barry Goolsby credited data-driven instruction and greater community awareness of the importance of student achievement.
“We’re really proud of that,” he said.