Audit reveals gaps Tupelo Schools must fill

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Tupelo School District must make its classes more demanding, improve its use of technology and rethink the way it educates minority, low-income and special education students, according to outside auditors.
The recommendations were reported Wednesday by one of five auditors from Phi Delta Kappa International who had been studying the schools since July.
The studies are designed to find gaps in what is being taught and areas where districts can improve. They aren’t intended to highlight what schools have done well.
“This is a gap analysis, it is not a pat on the back,” said Eve Proffitt, associate dean and professor of graduate education at Georgetown College in Kentucky and one of the auditors for PDK. The professional education association regularly performs such audits throughout the country.
The analysis included interviews with parents, students, teachers, administrators and board members; visits to classrooms; and a review of the district’s written curriculum guides.
PDK’s auditors said the district has three groups that are not being properly reached: low-income students, special education students and black or Hispanic students.
If the district continues to teach them as it does now, the achievement gap between those students and higher performers will only widen. Superintendent Randy Shaver called that the most concerning part of the report.

Learning style, not ability
The way to close the gap is to individually teach each student according to his or her learning style. Proffitt said that it would make sense to group students by learning style rather than by ability.
Shaver requested the audits when he came to the district in July. He said that it was important to find a starting point.
“We don’t want the community or schools to be defensive when we ask where our problems are,” Shaver said. “It is also important as a new superintendent to have someone from outside to corroborate what I think.”
Auditors also found that the district’s use of technology for instruction was “minimal.” The district will take a step toward correcting that shortcoming with its new laptop initiative, which will provide computers to all students in sixth- to 12th grade next year, and additional interactive classroom technology.
But both Proffitt and Shaver said more work is needed, including extensive professional development and facility improvements.
“Are students using the tools to help them learn?” Proffitt said.
Shaver said he is aware of the need to improve facilities to accommodate technology.
Auditors found that classes were not demanding enough, even honors and advanced placement classes. They did not see evidence that pre-AP courses were much different from their counterparts.
Also, auditors had difficulty discerning the difference between AP, honors and non-honors classes based upon what they observed while they were in classrooms. They said depth-of-knowledge skills were not being taught enough.
Shaver said the district needs to make rigorous AP classes available to all students. He said that it also needs to develop demanding curriculum guides that describe what should be taught in AP classes.
School board President Mike Clayborne said the district needs to be sure that there is consistency in what is being taught so that students have a seamless transition from one school to another.
“You can’t improve the process and the system until you have an objective look at what you’re doing,” Clayborne said. “People shouldn’t get too sensitive about the recommendations for improving. This is not about the auditors telling us about how great we are doing. It’s about telling us where our areas of improvement are.”
A similar audit is being conducted at all eight school districts located in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties: Lee County, Nettleton, Baldwyn, Pontotoc City, Pontotoc County, New Albany and Union County.
All eight audits are being paid from an education endowment fund promised by Toyota when it agreed to build a plant in Blue Springs.
Shaver said the district will immediately begin work on the areas highlighted by the audit, but noted it will be a process that will take time.
Shaver said he’d also like to see auditors return in a few years to analyze the progress the district has made.
“Improvement is not a destination, it is a process,” Shaver said. “This is indicative that we have some work to do, but we knew we would.”

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