By Monique Harrison
HOLLY SPRINGS – Marshall County School District officials know how it feels to be at the bottom of the Mississippi Department of Education accreditation ratings barrel.
In 1988 and 1992, the state placed the district on probation because of its Level 1 accreditation ratings. Every other year since the system was implemented eight years ago, the district has been at a Level 2 rating, meaning it was considered at risk of being placed on probation.
But this year, the district finally managed to reach the goal set when Superintendent Donnal Ash took office in the fall of 1992.
“We knew we wanted to reach Level 3, because that means we are operating a successful school district,” Ash said. “That’s important to us, because it’s a reflection of how our students are performing – how we are doing.”
Under Mississippi’s accreditation system, schools are evaluated using 38 different standards. Almost all of the standards are based upon standardized test scores, including the ACT, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Functional Literacy Exam, which all juniors are required to pass before graduation.
Other standards that weigh into the overall accreditation rating include school dropout rates.
In addition to performance requirements designed to gauge how well students are learning, districts are also expected to meet a battery of process standards.
Process standards evaluate more tangible goals, like the quality of a district’s facilities or transportation system.
The system is based on a five-point scale. Level 1 schools are automatically on probation, while Level 2 schools are at risk of being placed on probation. Level 3 schools are considered successful and Level 4 schools are considered above average, while Level 5 schools are deemed superior.
Three of the eight other Northeast Mississippi school districts that were rated a Level 2 last year are expected to move up when the accreditation ratings are officially issued March 8. Calhoun County, North Tippah and Okolona all improved to a Level 3. Each of the districts had previously been a Level 3 and were at the high end of the Level 2 scale last year.
Aberdeen and Chickasaw missed the mark by only one-tenth of a point this year, receiving 2.9 ratings. Benton County and Holly Springs – the two other districts that fell in the at-risk category – remained at the lower end of the Level 2 mark. No Northeast Mississippi districts were at Level 1 last year.
Teacher training improved
Marshall County officials say teacher training was the key to pulling their district out of the accreditation danger zone.
“I began to realize that most teachers were doing all they knew to do,” said assistant superintendent Debbie Childers. “So we moved in to help them – to give them some new ideas and provide the training they needed to help students bring up those scores.”
Using federal dollars provided by Title I, a curriculum director was placed in each of the district’s six schools.
Curriculum directors visit classes daily, evaluating teachers and giving them assistance with lesson plans.
“The way schools are today, a principal spends a lot of time handling discipline problems and paperwork,” said Potts Camp principal Brody Childers. “I might have time to pop in some classes, but that’s about it. Now, with this system, there’s someone who has that kind of time.”
Getting bad teachers out
Ash said the goal behind the increased supervision of teachers is two-fold.
“First, we want to help teachers who need the help – who want to do a good job but are having a little trouble,” Ash said. “And there are others, that, quite frankly, we see aren’t trying to improve. In those cases, we’re making sure we have enough documentation to justify not renewing that contract at the end of the year. Teachers who aren’t concerned about individual students need to look elsewhere for employment.”
Intensive teacher workshops – done primarily at the school level instead of districtwide – have also helped, officials said.
New teaching methods, including an increase in hands-on, applications-based learning, are a big part of the reform.
Teachers say for the most part they like the changes.
“We’ve been asked to use different strategies and I think they are working,” said fourth-grade teacher Annie Jamison, who teaches at Potts Camp. “This is my 26th year of teaching. I don’t want to stagnate. This additional training has helped.”
Demanding more of teachers and students has also helped the district to improve.
“It sounds simple, but the people of our district got used to being a Level 1 school district – thought we couldn’t do any better,” Ash said. “I had to get across … that I was serious about improving and that we were going to be the best we could be.”
Parental involvement up
Getting parents involved has been a driving goal.
The district purchased a van last year to bring parents to the school.
“If we call a parent and they say they can’t meet with a teacher because they don’t have a way to get there, we tell them we’re coming to pick them up,” Ash said.
Parent resource centers have been set up in each of the schools in an effort to provide parents with the knowledge needed to help their children perform in the classroom.
It took a hard sell to convince some of the teachers their students were capable of performing well, officials said.
“There was an idea that we couldn’t compete because of who we are,” the assistant superintendent said. “We aren’t a(n) … affluent area. We have our share of problems. People thought somehow no more could be expected of us.”
The district is a relatively poor one, with 86 percent of all students receiving free or reduced lunches. At one school, that percentage is more than 98 percent.
Ash said he’s not sure his district will ever hit Level 5. But he says his staff is setting their sights high.
Within the next few months, the district plans to re-examine their five-year plans.
Cramped conditions at each of the schools is a looming concern, aggravated by the fact the district is in debt and can’t take on another bond issue until 2006.
“There are no empty classrooms – no empty seats,” Ash said, adding that the district has been forced to install a portable building at one overflowing school. “Facilities are a concern. Our buildings aren’t exactly nice and shiny. But at least we have some of the academic concerns out of the way. Money’s not everything.”