Making the grade

Second in an ongoing series of articles addressing concerns revealed in our community survey.
By Lisa Voyles
Chickasaw Journal
CHICKASAW COUNTY – As the requirements for graduation and ranking levels for public schools grow more demanding, the local schools in Chickasaw County are facing decisions and making changes.
The Houston School district already offers PreK education to help prepare students for academia and the lower grades concentrate on language, reading and math as the basic cornerstones for future learning. The high school offers tutorial services and on-line credit recovery to assist students through graduation.
This year, the district added a new service, introduced in the drop-out prevention plan, that targets middle school students in an effort to keep them from falling through the cracks. The Academic Intervention Program began November 2008, but the background work started long before the implementation. Staff members went through students records, reviewing grades and targeting at-risk candidates.
“These are students who are in seventh and eighth grade who have failed one or more years,” said Lisa Blue. Blue is the Director of Special Programs for the district and coordinates programs for Special Education, Gifted, Alternative Education and Drop-out Prevention.
The AIP removed the at-risk students from the traditional classroom and provides them with extra assistance in achieving the benchmarks of their grade level. The goal is to catch students back up to grade level so that they can return to their classes and move forward. Rhonda Jolly and Carol Woods, both retired teachers, came back to the educational system to facilitate the classes.
“We don’t have concrete data at this time, as the program is in the first year,” Blue said. “At the end of the year, we will have an exit test and decide on the student’s placement for next year. They can remain in the program if they need to for an additional six months to a year.”
Blue is a strong supporter of alternative education that is focused on teaching students at their level and by non-traditional means to help them achieve.
“Having a drop-out component with the alternative school will play a bigger part in reducing our drop out rate,” Blue said. “We need to be more involved in alternative learning and education.”
Chickasaw County Superintendent Kathy Y. Davis of Houlka echoed the message and with good reason. Students in Houlka have been offered alternative education programs for the last five years, including a GED program.
“It works,” Davis said. “We use our money for alternative education differently – not as a disciplinary method, but as an academic learning model. Most of your disciplinary problems come from kids who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re 15 and in the eighth grade, what do you see? Nothing.”
At risk students are offered assistance, instruction and support to make their benchmarks in their grade level through individual education plans. Resources and one-on-one instruction are available through the Regional High School.
“You have to meet them where they are,” Davis said. “We’re constantly watching to see who’s failing and what we’re doing about it. We have to know what the problem is and address it.”
Houlka, with the lowest drop out rate in the county, is also the only public school with an in-house GED program. The drop-out rate at the Chickasaw County School district was reduced from 16 percent in 1999 to 2.59 percent in 2008.
“We are where we want to be with our dropout rate and we want to keep it there,” Davis said. “It’s a struggle, but we’re concentrating on completion rates. It’s not one-size-fits-all. We concentrate on educating kids and keeping them in school all the way to completion.”
The district recently received an ARC grant through Mississippi State University to put a wireless component into the educational package.
“Internet is a luxury for some individuals,” Davis said. “We want to have wireless areas around the school and town so people will be able to check out laptops. It will still be monitored through our system with filters and an acceptable use policy but will be more accessible to people and not just to students. Those who have already graduated can take on-line courses.”
The Okolona Municipal School District, like the others, concentrates on language arts, reading and math in the lower grades to provide a foundation for learning, but there is also a focus on emotional support and rewarding academic achievement.
Principal Ellis Orange said that a lot of focus is on the MCT2 tests each spring.
“We concentrate a lot on math, language and reading at the Elementary School,” Orange said. “Usually by this time of year, our teachers have provided the framework on the academic level and the students are achieving so they can spend two to three weeks putting on their finishing touches to prepare for the MCT2.”
The mandatory state tests have been revamped and many schools are concentrating on getting students ready for a new testing system.
“It’s kind of like the old joke,” smiled Orange. “Just when you figure out what the answer is, they change the question.”
Although Okolona does not have a GED component in the school at this time, they have a valuable community partner in the Excel Center. Excel offers tutorials and homework help for students, Adult Basic Education and GED programs and is located on Main Street in Okolona.
Like Okolona, the Houlka and Houston Schools are moving toward a reward system for behavior and achievement. Houlka administration are tracking discipline referrals in preparation for a Positive Behavior Intervention Support program.
“Our teachers and students together have come up with governing rules for behavior and consequences,” said Assistant Principal Michael Gillespie. “It’s an element of positive support. Once they get to the office, it’s a done deal. We have to catch them doing good.”
Houston Upper Elementary School Principal, Shannon Eaton, addressed the PTO on the same idea last week. Eaton has employed a “catch them being good” program for several years, but the program will be expanded to encompass the Upper and Lower Elementary school students in the coming year.
While changes in education are continual and requirements grow more strenuous, the public schools in Chickasaw County are not taking their jobs lightly. The administration and staff will change with the times and make the adjustments necessary to continue to serve their students and they know that their goals are long-term and continual.
“The problems didn’t arrive overnight and they will not leave overnight,” Blue said. “We have to constantly be aware of what is needed and provide it at every opportunity.”

Lisa Voyles