By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – As Tupelo Schools Superintendent Gearl Loden prepares for his second year at the helm, he has announced three new initiatives on which the district will focus.
The school chief announced in an April 7 column in the Daily Journal plans to expand the TPSD’s arts integration program, to retain kindergarten to second grade students who are not at grade level in reading or math and to group elementary students based on their instructional level.
He spoke in more detail earlier this week about these initiatives, which he said developed from conversations with parents and other community members.
“We really listened to the public,” he said. “We want to try to limit new initiatives since there are already so many new things coming with a new accountability model, teacher evaluations, principal evaluations and a new curriculum based on the Common Core standards.”
First- to fifth-grade students will remain in classes with students of their same grade-level, but will be grouped with those who have performed similar to them based on grades, performance on assessment tests and teacher recommendations.
That means those groupings will be flexible, with students potentially moving to different groups during the school year.
The flexibility will be used for math and reading in third- to fifth-grade. It will initially only be used for reading in first and second grades, but could be expanded to math later in the year.
Students will be in the same homeroom, science and social studies classes throughout the year.
The school district has already been using a similar strategy at Pierce Street Elementary, said Assistant Superintendent Kim Britton, formerly a principal at that grades three-to-five school.
One advantage, she said, is that it is easier for teachers to plan to teach students who are all performing at roughly the same level. They can focus on challenging those who have mastered a concept or providing extra help to those who haven’t.
“Communication with parents is very important,” she said. “What we liked is it led to a higher level of collaboration among teachers. They were responsible for all of the students.”
Students will be assessed every four-and-a-half weeks and they could be shuffled at that time, Loden said. Classes for students who are below grade level likely will be smaller, he said.
“Our goal is that every child will be proficient, and the advanced students will be pushed so that everyone will have a year’s worth of growth or more,” he said.
The initiative will be different from the multi-age classrooms Tupelo used in the early 1990s under former Superintendent Mike Walters. Under that, two grades were placed together, and students could be grouped with those a grade level above or below them,
The problem with that, Loden said, is that some students may be great readers but might not have the hand-eye coordination to write as well, for example. Individual grades are large enough, he said, that there will be enough to challenge high performers.
Mississippi legislators recently passed a law that will retain students in third grade if they are not reading on grade level by the end of the year.
This is often too late, Loden said.
Instead, Tupelo will be more aggressive about retaining kindergarten to second-grade students who are far behind where they need to be. Students will be measured in five ways, including grades and their scores on various tests and programs. Those not at grade level in reading or math in three of the five will repeat that grade. Students in those grades would not be retained more than once.
“I know a lot of people say you should be on grade level by third grade,” Loden said. “I believe it is second grade. By third grade, you are already reading to learn, and you are behind.”
Loden said some students arrive at school behind their peers and that the gift of time is one of the best gifts the district has. He has used similar policies when he was superintendent in Amory and an elementary principal in Houston.
“It is not like the district hasn’t been retaining students, but we will really focus on it because we need everyone to be on grade level by the time they leave second grade,” he said.
Because of the flexible grouping, those who repeat a grade will not have to relearn everything, but can also be placed with students who have mastered the concepts they were able to learn the year before.
“If you can take a child who comes in a half year behind, and they start the next year a half year ahead, now they have confidence,” Loden said. “Now that child comes home able to do homework, they have confidence, they are more mature, and they can stay that way.”
Tupelo has long participated in the Arts Integration program from the Mississippi Arts Commission.
In it, teachers across various subjects use visual art, music, movement and other concepts to illustrate what they are teaching. For example, they may describe an art print using vivid verbs and adjectives or draw a self portrait and then calculate the area.
Currently, Thomas Street Elementary is a model school in the program. That is the highest level a school can reach based on how thoroughly they implement the ideas.
Pierce Street Elementary, Lawndale Elementary and Tupelo Middle School are also participating in the program.
Beginning next year, all pre-K-8 schools will participate.
“There is a high level or art support in our community, and this is a great way to enhance instruction,” Loden said.
Britton also saw the program first-hand when she was at Pierce Street.
“We saw high levels of student energy,” she said. “Students retain information longer because it is embedded in their brains.”
The challenge, she said, is being sure the activities tie into the curriculum.
“Just because you see a pretty picture doesn’t mean it is arts integration,” she said.
The district will offer training for teachers in late May and will also send about 50 or 60 staff members to an arts integration conference in Meridian during the summer.