Okolona schools forge ahead

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

OKOLONA – Roughly 40 students from Okolona High School have attended voluntary tutoring sessions on a couple of recent Saturdays.
Other students says they’ve been doing more homework than normal and that their classes have become more focused.
And teachers say their planning has become easier, thanks to greater continuity.
The changes have come the wake of the state’s takeover of their school district, a move which has given students increased motivation to prove themselves and more awareness of the value of an education.
Two months have passed since former Rankin County and Tupelo Superintendent Mike Vinson began his duty as the district’s conservator, a role that gives him the powers of superintendent and school board.
Vinson was put in charge to solve multiple problems that prompted the conservatorship.
Not only was the 650-student district plagued by accreditation violations and poor academic performance, but also it was in danger of going bankrupt.
Vinson has spent much of his first two months collecting data about the district, reviewing its finances and assessing its curriculum. Although much of the heavy lifting of improving the district’s academics will begin next school year, students and teachers say they’ve already noticed a difference.
“The teachers have been doing more with us and giving us more work,” said sophomore Shakieria Stanfield. “Some students are paying more attention and taking it more seriously.
“It’s not just us talking about the state maybe taking us over. Now that it happened, everyone wants to do better. We are tired of everyone talking about our school in a negative way. We want to do more and to get it on a positive track.”
Carla James, whose son is in 10th grade at Okolona High School, also has noticed a difference in his study habits.
“I notice that when he comes home, it seems like he is more willing to pick up a book,” James said. “It seems like he is reading more and doing more homework. He seems like he is taking education a little more seriously.”
Stanfield said students are putting more emphasis on state tests than they did in the past. Okolona High School recently held two Saturday tutoring sessions to help its students prepare for the Algebra I and English II state tests.
Okolona High School Principal Barry Woods said the district is determined to improve its standing in the state accountability rankings. This year, the school was ranked “Failing,” the bottom of seven categories.
“To do that, we can’t do things the way we’ve done them in the past,” Woods said. “We have to have a renewed focus and a renewed passion. We have to work harder and smarter.”
Students and teachers said the conservatorship has provided a wake-up call. It has also provided motivation.
“I see a lot more students, including myself, working harder to make our school better,” said senior Kierra Johnson, the school’s salutatorian who will enroll at the University of Mississippi in the fall to study pharmacy. “We didn’t realize what it looked like from the outside.
“We want to show everyone our school is not as bad as everyone thinks it is. There are a lot of smart students in the Okolona School District. We want to show that to everyone.”
Prior to the conservatorship, the school district had had four superintendents over the previous three years. Robert Shinn, who has taught at the high school for the last 13 years, said the continuity of the conservatorship has been important.
“Now we can make some plans for the future,” Shinn said. “Before you would start to get something put together and then you’d have a whole new face to work with.
“Every time you make a change, you introduce stress, and we have had way too much stress around here the last few years.”
Vinson, who had retired as Tupelo superintendent in January 2002, said that it has been great being back in a school environment, walking on campuses and getting hugs from kindergartners and handshakes from high school students.
“I’ve enjoyed being here and working with the staff,” Vinson said. “They are some of the finest kids I’ve ever been around in my life.”
Meanwhile, Amy Anderson, director of the vocational center, said that Vinson has done a great job of giving administrators support and advice but also staying out of their way and allowing them to do their jobs.
“I have a lot of faith in his ability to straighten our district out,” Anderson said.
That work has already begun.
Vinson has corrected many of the district’s 33 accreditation violations, including publicizing graduation requirements, providing handbooks to students and developing job descriptions. He hopes to have all of them corrected by December.
The district will likely end this year in a financial hole and could have to borrow as much as $300,000 from a state emergency fund at the end of June.
Local tax revenues have been about $100,000 lower than expected, and state funding was cut about $325,000, Vinson said, causing the deficit.
The conservator was limited in how much he could correct those finances this year because much of the district’s budget was already tied up in contracts. He’s already taken steps to correct it during the 2010-11 school year.
The district is aggressively seeking several federal grants and delaying until 2012 any major purchase that isn’t essential. It will not replace staff members who retire or resign, and it has cut much of its travel.
It may also have to cut a few teaching positions.
Vinson said that he will determine how many teachers the district will need based upon projected enrollment numbers. He’ll then determine where staff should be assigned.
Vinson said he doesn’t want to cut any positions, but that it will be necessary to look at how the district can more effectively use its personnel.
“We can’t get the results we want academically if we don’t have enough good teachers,” Vinson said. “But where there is room to cut, they will be.”
Five teachers have already said they are either retiring or not returning to the district, and their positions will not be filled, Vinson said. He said the district has about 80 employees.
“Things have been going smoothly,” said Johnson, the salutatorian. “We have been getting to work and staying on task. I’ve seen a real positive change.
“A lot of people thought it would be negative, but I’ve seen a real positive change.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Vinson works to forge bond with community
The new school leader has encouraged partnerships.

OKOLONA – New Okolona Conservator Mike Vinson had been on the job for one day when he made a phone call to Sister Liz Brown, the executive director of Excel Inc.
Vinson asked Brown if he could visit the community-based organization, which offers after-school and GED classes, among other services.
“We brought him on a tour of the facility,” Brown said. “It was a wonderful step.”
Many members of the Okolona community have reported similar experiences with Vinson, whom they say has worked hard to unite the community and school district.
“I have found him very interested in how the community and the school system can work together,” Brown said.
Vinson also made an appearance at the March board meeting of Baby Steps, another community organization which seeks to provide resources to parents.
“I have had one major impression, and it was that many many people in Okolona think the conservatorship was probably a good thing,” said William Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who grew up in Okolona and founded Baby Steps. “They think this may be both a wake-up call and an opportunity to make some things happen that probably needed to happen earlier. Sometimes people don’t move unless they have a sense of crisis.”
In his first two months on the job, Vinson has met with a variety of community members, from parents to businessmen to bank presidents.
Monthly “conservator” meetings have replaced school board meetings so that the district can get certain things recorded in its minutes. Those meetings are also open to the public.
“I think he has been fantastic, just his open-door policy,” said parent Barbara Carouthers, who has a son in sixth grade. “He hasn’t made any drastic changes. He will make changes, but every school system will have to because of the budget cuts. Most importantly, he is communicating with us.”
Carouthers first saw Vinson at a community meeting on the first night of the conservatorship. She completed a form on which she listed three different phone numbers. A couple of days later, Vinson called all three and left a message at each one.
“It showed me that it is important to him to hear what I have to say and to realize that my voice is important in the decisions he has to make about the children of Okolona,” Carouthers said.
In meeting with both Excel Inc., and Baby Steps, he discussed new partnerships the school district could form with those organizations.
“What we did was to let him know that although our focus at Baby Steps has been with preschool parents, because of this crisis, we have prepared to expand that role at least temporarily and do whatever we can to get the schools on a solid footing,” Raspberry said. “He seems very receptive to that.”
Okolona resident Hal Spratt recently formed a panel of parents to discuss what needs to be done to improve the city’s schools. Spratt said that Vinson has done a good job and has brought an important transparency, but the community can’t expect him to do it alone.
He said the schools need to get better funding from outside. And he added that there needs to be a sense of urgency within the city.
“When this first happened, there was a lot of emotion and people were excited about the change,” Spratt said. “Now people are getting back in their comfort zone, and we’re not there yet.
“We need to keep the momentum for years to see this thing through.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.