By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
CORINTH – At Corinth High School, tests are longer, textbooks are shorter and graphing calculators have nearly disappeared.
Students must justify the answers they give with facts. Teachers provide real-world examples to their lessons, many of which blend knowledge of multiple academic subjects.
The 560-student high school is one of three in the state to incorporate the Excellence for All pilot program this year. Clarksdale and Gulfport high schools are the others.
In the program, formerly known as the Board Examination Systems Program, freshmen and sophomores enroll in more rigorous classes with an international curriculum. At the completion of those courses, they take a board exam.
Sophomores who pass their examinations are eligible to graduate early. They also can enroll in the upper division of the program with intense college prep courses and an opportunity to earn college credit.
Those upper-division students also can earn a special internationally-recognized diploma in addition to their CHS diploma.
The idea of the program is that students who pass the lower division exams will be ready to enroll in community college courses without needing remedial classes. Those who pass the upper division will be prepared for selective universities.
“When our kids go to college or work, we are trying to teach them to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners,” said Corinth High School Principal Russ Elam. “We think our kids will come out of high school prepared to go to college at a level they haven’t been before.”
The courses in the program do not follow the Mississippi curriculum. Instead, participating schools can choose between four approved international curricula. Corinth chose to use one developed by the University of Cambridge in England.
Schools had the option of implementing the program with a small group of students. Corinth made it available to all of its freshmen and sophomores. The school also has several upper-division courses for its older students this year.
Traditional classes are still available. Some students have a full load of Cambridge classes, while others are just enrolled in one or two of those courses.
“The staff believed all ninth- and 10th-graders should experience this type of program,” Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said.
Teachers and students said they are noticing an impact just two months into the school year. One element of the Cambridge curriculum is that students have to spend more effort explaining how they arrived at an answer. Tests now use essay questions and short answer responses rather than multiple choice.
“Teachers say they have seen tremendous growth in students’ ability to process information, justify, compare and contrast and take and argue a position,” Childress said.
Counselor Jennifer Martindale said several parents have called to tell her their child is no longer bored in class.
The students’ processes are valued, as well as the outcomes. For instance, they can receive partial credit for wrong answers to math problems if they took correct steps during the process. At the same time, they are not allowed to use graphing calculators.
“It really helps our students to become critical thinkers, and I think before they lacked that somewhat,” said English teacher Gennella Graham. “They have to really evaluate how they think. I love that aspect.”
Classes are structured differently. There is a math course that blends algebra 1, geometry and some algebra 2 concepts. A science course combines physics, biology and chemistry.
The value of that, teachers said, is that the curriculum does a better job of showing the relationship between those subjects.
“The students are more into the scientific process of any subject than they are memorizing terms and structures,” said science teacher Debbie Madjlesi.
Textbooks are shorter but go much more in-depth. Math teacher Erika McCoy said even though the books don’t have as many pages, it can take much longer to work through them. Those books often make classes work, research and think to determine answers.
“Classes require a lot more study,” said senior Erika Pruitt. “There is a lot more information to remember.”
Classmates Jaylend Adams and Cullen Grantham said the textbooks require them to do more thinking to answer questions.
The books also emphasize real-world examples. In a class last week, McCoy challenged her students to identify three examples of how estimation and approximation are used in real life. Algebra equations are taught using word problems, said math teacher Alesha Knight.
Several teachers said they also have seen significant improvement from lower-level students. Perhaps it is because they are being challenged in a way they never have. Or maybe the real-world emphasis makes their lessons more relevant, they suggested.
“Kids don’t ask any more, ‘How does this apply to my life?,'” Knight said.
The Excellence for All program was developed by the National Center on Education and the Economy. It is based on more than 20 years of research on countries that outperform the United States on international student assessments. Twenty-one high schools in four states are participating this year.
The Mississippi Department of Education invited several school districts to apply last year, and Deputy State Superintendent Lynn House said she would like to see two to four additional schools add this program each year.
“This is not a mandate, this is an opportunity,” she said. “We are here to support districts, but it is an initiative that has to have buy-in.”
Tupelo High School originally agreed to participate last year before deciding to wait. The program is still on the table for the district to add in the future. New Albany is among the districts studying it.
Participating schools still will be judged by the current accountability model that uses the state curriculum to test students, House said. However, if they notice “inappropriate consequences” from being involved in the pilot program, they will be able to petition the state board.
MDE is supportive of the schools trying this program, House said, and can work with them on issues that arise.
“I think the courage that is being demonstrated by communities and superintendents and boards provides a real model for us not to be afraid of risk,” she said.