Education endowment sparks teacher collaboration

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A group of English teachers from eight different school districts have spent the past week helping each other develop lessons for the classroom.
Laptops open and piles of paper spread in front of them, the educators from Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties talked about ways to best teach “Romeo and Juliet” and ideas to begin introducing informative texts that will be required under new national standards.
The week-long effort was the culmination of a year and a half of regular meetings for members of the group. When they’re finished, they will have 19 different in-depth model lessons that can be used to teach English I and II objectives required by the state. Some of the lessons are as long as 83 pages.
“It is nice to be able to get together and compare,” said Laura Butts, a 10th-grade English teacher at Nettleton. “I feel like I have resources outside my own school district.”
Not only is such collaboration unique in Mississippi, so is its genesis. A new education partnership was born from an economic development project.
After officials from Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties worked together to lure Toyota to Blue Springs, the automaker pledged to create a $50 million endowment to enhance education in the three counties.
The fund has been used for several efforts that have joined the eight school districts within those three counties: Pontotoc City, Pontotoc County, New Albany, Union County, Tupelo, Lee County, Nettleton and Baldwyn.
Best known is the Wellspring Center for Professional Futures, a facility that will be built near the Toyota factory. It will provide students in all eight districts high-level experience and training in career opportunities not available at their individual vocational schools.
The endowment also has funded curriculum audits to help the eight school districts identify weaknesses that could be corrected, leadership workshops for their administrators and a peer tutoring program.
This weekend, each district will send three representatives to the Model Schools Conference in Orlando, Fla., where they will hear tips from some of the most successful schools in the United States. Their attendance at the conference was paid for by the endowment.
When Toyota announced the fund, it stipulated the money had to be spent fairly and equitably, said CREATE Foundation President Mike Clayborne. That has resulted in a number of programs that have been shared by all eight districts. It has also led to a new collaboration between them.
“I think it has been one of the best things that has occurred,” Clayborne said. “When we were talking originally about sharing information from district to district, one of the teachers said, ‘We don’t even share material within our district.’
“This is a completely new level of sharing, sharing information with other school districts.”
The meetings between the English teachers began after it was seen as a need through the curriculum audits. Adding to the urgency, fewer Mississippi students pass the English II state test than any of the other high school state tests. The plan is to have similar collaborative groups for teachers in other grades and core subject areas in the future.
The group has consisted of two or three English I or II teachers from each district, plus curriculum directors. They began by seeking ways to share resources, but their focus broadened after education consultant Cindy Simmons was brought in as a facilitator.
Simmons spent more than 20 years as an English teacher and was the Mississippi Department of Education’s director of student assessment until retiring two years ago. She told the group it could do more and dig deeper.
They began to write detailed lessons based on the state standards.
“We are going deep and looking at how to reach these objectives,” said Tupelo High School English teacher Julie Worth. “We are getting more depth.”
The lessons will help first-year teachers or those new to English I and II. It can also help the teachers expand their craft. Those involved in the curriculum group will take the things they’ve learned back to the rest of the teachers in their school.
“They will have a knowledge base most other teachers in the state won’t based on the depth of the work they’ve done,” Simmons said. “…I’ve been in this state in public education a long time, and this is one of the best things I’ve seen happen.”
Simmons also has been a valuable resource to help the teachers get ready for the new national Common Core State Standards, which Mississippi will begin following in 2014. She is part of the small national collaboration helping develop one of the new assessment tests. While a lot of the information she has from that is confidential, she has directed the teachers to a wealth of resources they didn’t know was available.
“This has gotten us prepared for Common Core,” said Nettleton High School English I teacher Shanna Cole. “We can take it to other teachers. We are familiar with it. We have been working with it all this time. You fear the unknown, but I don’t dread Common Core. We’ve been preparing.”
Meanwhile, Apple Distinguished Educator Larry Anderson has been a facilitator for the group and has introduced them to various new technologies.
The group also has benefited from hearing ideas from different school districts.
“One of the most beneficial things is we don’t all think alike,” said Belinda Bruce, who teaches English I and II at Mooreville High School. “Because we have so many different perspectives on a story or a lesson, we have so many more ways of meeting our students.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com