By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
When Robert Merritt became principal at Hickory Flat Attendance Center during the summer of 2009, his first order of business was scrambling to get schedules completed and teachers assigned for the school year, which was just weeks away from beginning.
His second order was to improve discipline and structure.
More than a year after Merritt’s entrance, the school has shown remarkable improvement on its student test scores. The school, which was ranked At Risk of Failing in 2009 jumped two levels in the latest state accountability rankings. It is now ranked Successful.
It was one of 16 Northeast Mississippi schools to improve by two levels in the state rankings. Those schools can serve as models to others in the region as they try to maneuver the state’s new accountability model.
Assistant Principal Walter Moore also started at the 700-student kindergarten to 12th-grade school prior to the 2009-10 school year. Merritt and Moore both said that as much as the school’s academics have improved – the changes to its discipline and structure are even more profound.
They said the keys to the turnaround were a slow and methodical approach and clarity about the expectations that would be used to hold staff and students accountable.
“We had to put the expectations out there for our staff and students,” Merritt said. “The key was to have teachers teaching from bell to bell and to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Merritt said he detected a change last December. That’s when he noticed students and teachers begin to realize that he and Moore were going to see the job through and that the expectations were firm.
Merritt and Moore said they didn’t need to do anything fancy. With 80 percent of the school’s students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, Merritt said they weren’t going to spend their way to success.
“Part of the success that comes in education comes from administrators, teachers and community members being willing to take a stand and say here are our standards,” Merritt said. “You have to be willing to hold the line.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.