DOING AN EDUCATIONAL 180 SERIES: Shannon Middle School awaits test data

About the series
- This is the third in an occasional series
of articles examining the efforts to improve student performance at Shannon Middle School.

SHANNON – Connie Finnie stood under the late May sun as students ran through the field that sits behind Shannon Middle School.
Those students were enjoying the school’s field day – dancing and singing, eating and competing – generally making the most of being outside the classrooms where they had spent much of the previous 10 months.
Finnie, the mother of two sons at the sixth- to eighth-grade school, was taking a break from her chaperone duties as she reflected upon the growth she had seen at the school whose test scores were once among the lowest in the state.
“I never volunteered as much as I have this year,” she said. “Seeing that they are trying to change things has gotten me excited. I come out every week.
“This school is trying to be more involved, so we as parents should be more excited.”
As Lee County’s school district continues its efforts to remake a school whose 2009 state test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Mississippi secondary schools, Shannon Middle now sits in a holding pattern.
During the past year, the school has installed a new principal and assistant principal, added a new emphasis on literacy instruction, created a library and worked to build an identity independent of adjoining Shannon High School.
All of those efforts have had intangible impacts. Yet, all of them ultimately will be measured by the school’s results on this year’s state tests. And although those tests have all been taken, school officials must wait until July to learn how students performed.
Those results likely won’t be available to the public until around September.
“Unfortunately, that is the stick we have to look at,” said Principal Keith Steele, who was the district’s assistant superintendent before moving to the school in July. “It puts it all in one basket, whether all of this hoopla means anything.
“I know behind the scenes what it means, but that is what will reflect it.”
Steele is “cautiously optimistic,” that the school fared well. That optimism is based upon the school’s results on different assessment tests its students took throughout the year to measure how well they were grasping what they’d been taught.
On one benchmark test taken at the end of the third quarter, Shannon had the highest eighth-grade math score in the school district, a result that represents tremendous growth.
It was an accomplishment that brought pride to Tabatha Trice, the mother of two students at the school.
“It made me feel good, being a parent at Shannon,” she said. “You can tell a difference in the kids this year.”
Therein lies the other half of the battle toward transforming a school. Not only do administrators and teachers need to improve test scores and rankings, but they also have to get those inside and outside the building to believe in the school’s success. That’s what makes positive comments from people like Finnie and Trice so valuable.
Assistant Principal Rodney Spears, who was a principal at Pontotoc High School before this year, said that transforming expectations has been a big part of the staff’s efforts.
“We are still improving every day with that battle,” he said. “We need to get kids to understand there is this myth out there about you, and the only way to change that myth is you and your attitude and the way you treat one another.”
As the school tried to improve both its test scores and its perception, it added several classes to give students more help in the core subjects.
Most of the school’s 270 pupils were enrolled in one of three classes that helped them improve their reading skills. Those 90-minute courses were in addition to English classes, giving them a daily dose of two hours and 15 minutes of literacy instruction. Many were also enrolled in learning skills classes, in which teachers would provide additional help for the areas that gave students difficulty.
“Their literacy skills are stronger and because of this,” said seventh-grade language arts teacher Kathy Pippin. “They are able to take more pride in their work because it makes it easier for them.
“You can see the excitement these kids show. They’ll say, ‘We learned this in Ms. Finch’s literacy class.’ You can see how proud they are that they already know something. That is half the battle.”
Parents say they’ve noticed the new excitement as well.
“Last year, they made the honor roll just to please me,” Trice said of her two children. “This year, they want to do it. They want to do it for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Steele worked to provide Shannon Middle greater separation from Shannon High School. The middle school was given its own intercom and bell system and its own library. That facility, which just opened in January, now has more than 5,000 books, seven computers and 45 digital book devices.
High school classes were removed from the middle school building, and ninth- to 12th-grade students were no longer allowed to congregate there.
“It was important to have our own identity separate from the high school and control our own destiny every day,” Steele said. “This age group needed to stay with its own age group.”
Eighth-grade math teacher Jana Edwards said the separation from the high school has improved student behavior.
Eighth-grader Heather Reich agrees, noting that last year there was much more drama with middle school students getting in arguments with those in high school.
“It helps keep people focused instead of worrying about them,” she said.
Added eighth-grader Jordan Roberts: “We didn’t like it, but it helped.”
Spears, the assistant principal, has overseen discipline, and Steele said that fights and other serious referrals have decreased. Three of the school’s students were sent to the district’s alternative school this year, down from eight to 12 in past years, he said.
“I really think the pattern of discipline has been one sign things have been better,” Steele said.
The school did improve its test scores in 2010, earning a ranking of Academic Watch from the Mississippi Department of Education. That’s the fourth best of seven tiers.
As it seeks to build upon those gains, Shannon Middle must wait for the results from the latest round of testing. Those scores will shape opinions about the effectiveness of many of the school’s reforms and will determine, in many ways, where Shannon Middle goes next.
“That is the hard part,” Spears said. “You have to wait months for the results to come back. The whole time, you are waiting on pins and needles.”
Once administrators get those results, Spears said, they will see what worked and what didn’t.
“If it comes back we are not as good as last year, we need to make changes,” he said. “We believe they will be better. Students worked hard and teachers worked hard. The reality is we have to wait until we get the scores.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal