Data drives changes in Shannon Middle turnaround

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of a series of articles examining the efforts to improve student performance at Shannon Middle School.

SHANNON – As Shannon Middle School educators begin the second year of their school turnaround efforts, they are armed with a new weapon.
Having recently received the results from last spring’s state standardized tests, the school’s administrators already have planned changes for the new school year that begins on Thursday.
The length of class periods will be extended, the school’s focus on literacy will be tweaked and more attention will be given to enriching higher-performing students.
“Data drives everything,” said Assistant Principal Rodney Spears. “Data tells you where you are and where you need to be. This set of data we’ve just gotten is very important to us, and it gives us an opportunity to evaluate.”
The results of those tests were the first official set of data since Keith Steele became principal and Spears was named assistant principal in July 2010. Their hiring was part of an effort by the Lee County School District to improve a school whose 2008-09 state test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s middle and high schools.
The district unsuccessfully applied for a $1.25 million federal school improvement grant, and then inserted a pair of experienced administrators. Steele had been the district’s assistant superintendent, while Spears was principal at Pontotoc High School.
The two put their own stamp on the improvement efforts with several new initiatives, adding 90-minute literacy blocks to supplement English classes and giving the school its own library. Shannon Middle had previously shared a library with adjoining Shannon High School.
The test scores revealed great growth in the eighth grade. Each student took a state test in math and in language arts at the 270-student sixth- to eight-grade school. The testtakers scored – from lowest to highest – basic, minimal, proficient or advanced.
This year, the number of eighth-graders scoring proficient and advanced in language rose by 34.6 percentage points, from 18.8 percent to 53.4.
Meanwhile the percentage of eighth-graders scoring in the top two categories on the math test rose by 17.1 points, compared to the year before. It went from 50 to 67.1.
Shannon Middle ranked second among Lee County’s four middle schools on both tests, after ranking last on both a year earlier.
Results were not as good in sixth- and seventh-grade, where scores dropped compared to the year before.
This was the first year that Shannon Middle School had a sixth-grade, as that level was previously housed at Shannon Elementary. Steele said the school will be more demanding of its sixth-graders this year and do more to ensure those students get off to a good start.
The seventh-grade declines came one year after large growth on both seventh-grade tests, and this year’s scores remain double-digit percentage points better than those from two years ago.
The school’s average combined raw score from all of the tests was the highest it has been in the four years since Mississippi introduced its new standardized tests.
“We are encouraged,” Steele said of the school’s test scores. “We went down there to make a difference, and I think we are starting to do that. We haven’t gotten to where we want to be, but this is showing us we are going in the right direction.”
This year, the school will make several changes to try to raise those scores further. For one, the schedule will switch from eight periods to seven, with the length of each class extended from 45 minutes to 53.
The literacy class also will last 53 minutes, after being 90 minutes long last year. It will continue to supplement normal English classes, but this year it will mostly be for the school’s highest-performing students. The goal is to stretch those students and to have more of them score advanced on the state test.
Shannon Middle didn’t have more than 11.4 percent of its students score advanced on any of its six tests last spring.
“We are going to try to enrich some of the higher-performing students to push them to the top,” Steele said. “That is a new strategy or direction we are taking with literacy.”
The school, which also will offer after-school enrichment for its highest-performing students, won’t neglect its other students.
Special help will be available for all students, and there will be extra math and reading classes for struggling students.Chris Kieffer 7/29/11 Optional trim
Meanwhile, as a new year begins, Steele and Spears said they will emphasize the gains made during the previous year. Those will go a long way in helping the school establish a new culture, Spears said.
“Improved test scores helps with getting an identity and seeing that we can improve,” Spears said. “I think when we come back, morale will be high … I think kids will expect more of themselves. They will expect to be successful.”