By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – After three disappointing years, the Tupelo Public School District made a splash in the 2012 school rankings released today by the Mississippi Department of Education.
The school district is ranked High Performing, or “B,” the second highest of seven levels assigned by the Mississippi Department of Education based on student scores on state tests they took last school year. For the previous three years, Tupelo had ranked “Academic Watch,” the fourth highest level, which would have translated to a “D” this year.
The district was one of only two in Northeast Mississippi to improve its ranking by two levels.
“It is exciting for the district,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden. “It is a tribute to the hard work of the administrative team and the teachers that were here last year.”
None of Tupelo’s schools were ranked lower than Successful, or “C,” the third highest level. All four third- to fifth-grade schools – Lawhon, Lawndale, Pierce Street and Rankin – were ranked High Performing, or “B,” as was Tupelo Middle School.
Milam Elementary School, a sixth-grade school, and Tupelo High School were both ranked Successful, or “C.” The state Board of Education is expected to officially approve the 2012 accountability results at its meeting today.
A new state law converts the different ranking levels to letter grades. Only schools with third-grade or higher receive a ranking because those are the only students who take state tests.
The district benefitted from the MDE’s decision not to use graduation rates while ranking schools and districts this year as it has done in past years. Had those been used, it would have been Successful, or “C.”
Pierce Street, Lawhon and Rankin each improved their rankings by two levels from last year, and TMS and Milam moved up one notch. Lawndale was ranked High Performing last year, and THS also kept the same ranking.
“Tupelo has a tradition of excellence,” said Assistant Superintendent Kim Britton, who was principal at Pierce Street last year. “The last two to three years have been disappointing. Being on Academic Watch did not feel good.
“We are encouraged today. This shows what we knew all along, that our students can learn.”
Signs noting the district’s new ranking were placed at each of its schools, including the Link Centre, which hosts the School-Aged Mothers program. The accomplishment will be proclaimed from billboards, including the electronic one located at Crosstown.
The schools’ accomplishment comes during what has been a trying period, in which community members have expressed frustrations with the city’s schools.
“Wonderful news for our city,” said Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. “I am ecstatic. Jumping two levels is terrific.
“Congratulations and thanks to our students and our teachers and our administrators and our school board and our parents and our volunteers. Maximum effort produces maximum results. Tupelo schools are back. More hard work is ahead but success breeds success. Tupelo’s success and our Tupelo public schools’ success are inseparable.”
When the school district had an outside organization complete a curriculum audit of the district in 2010, one of the findings was that the district wasn’t teaching the same things at each of its elementary schools.
It has since worked to correct that and has held curriculum writing workshops over the past two summers in which teams of teachers have gathered to write a consistent curriculum and develop other documents for teachers.
Britton said those efforts have made a difference.
“Last year there was a big focus on curriculum,” Britton said. “It was a year to refocus and do what is best for children, and I think the test scores show that.”
That focus came from David Meadows, who served as interim superintendent from April 2011 until Loden officially took office in June. He emphasized simplifying programs for teachers and having them concentrate on the curriculum.
“That was the advantage of having Mr. Meadows, who has been here for years, being able to simplify and focus on instruction,” Loden said.
This is the fourth year that the MDE has used its current model for ranking schools and districts and is the first time that Tupelo has met its growth target, which measures if individual students improve as much during the year as they are expected to do. Meeting growth bumps districts up one level in the rankings.
Loden said the district will work hard to continue the momentum it gained this year. He noted doing so will be more difficult next year. The MDE will count the fifth- and eighth-grade science tests toward state rankings, something it has not done in the past.
Also graduation rates will be used again to determine rankings. So will the new U.S. history test, which is more difficult than the one students took in the past.
“We want to have schools our community can be proud of,” Loden said. “We want students to be excited about coming to school and learning.”
Northeast Mississippi Accountability Ratings in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper on page 5A.