More schools get chance at pilot program

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

CORINTH – The Mississippi Department of Education will offer grants to schools interested in joining the Excellence for All pilot program.
In the program, freshmen and sophomores enroll in more rigorous classes with an international curriculum. At the completion of those courses, they take a board exam.
Sophomores who pass their examination are eligible to graduate early. They can also enroll in the upper division of the program with intense college prep courses and an opportunity to earn college credit.
Three districts, including Corinth, offered the program during the recently completed school year, the first year for the program. Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said the department will provide grants of $50,000 to up to 10 additional school districts to begin the planning and implementation process of joining the pilot.
Those sites should be named in September or October, she said.
Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said his district’s first year in the program “went extremely well.” All three districts that implemented it, including Clarksdale and Gulfport, will continue it this year.
“The teachers and students both became adjusted to the curriculum and to the changes in teaching strategies,” Childress said.
The program was developed by the National Center on Education and the Economy based on more than 20 years of research on countries that outperform the United States on international student assessments. Twenty-one high schools in four states participated this year. The idea is that students who pass the lower division exams will be ready to enroll in community college courses without needing remedial classes. Those who pass the upper division will be prepared for selective universities.
Participating schools chose between four approved international curriculums, and Corinth used one developed by the University of Cambridge in England. Because that curriculum follows an international calendar, students were at the school taking various exams through June 15.
“We were very pleased with the number and percentage of our students who showed back up to take exams in the month of June,” Childress said. “That showed the student commitment to the program and the fact that their teachers had impressed on them the importance of participating in the assessment process where we would have data to determine we were delivering curriculum at the appropriate rigor.”
The results of those tests will be available in August. The school also will learn then whether a group of about 10 seniors was successful in obtaining a special internationally-recognized diploma for completing the upper-level of the program.
Those seniors returned to the school in the days after their graduation to take those exams.
This school year, the first group of sophomores will try to pass the exams that would allow them to graduate early or advance to the upper level of the program.
Childress said the district will add a couple of new courses this year. It will also expand some of the Cambridge curriculum to the middle school. It was only used at the high school this year.
“You’ll see additional emphasis on reading activities and on writing activities,” Childress said of the middle school changes. “Students will have to cite more information from texts to support what they’re writing.”
Corinth made the program available to all of its freshmen and sophomores last year, as well as a few upperclassmen. The high school also offered traditional and Advanced Placement courses.
The biggest challenge, Childress said, is that students had to do considerably more reading and writing than they did in the past.
“We saw their skill as writers and we saw their skill in the ability to make inferences and argue points and use information from texts to support their arguments,” he said. “They improved dramatically over the year in the ability to do that.”
Teachers also had to change the way they taught, incorporating more student participation and dialogue, Childress said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com