Pontotoc High School student Michael Simon shows his anatomy and physiology project to teacher Martha Crawford. District officials say personal relationships between students and teachers are critical for success.
By Monique Harrison
PONTOTOC In many school districts, education officials devote hours of meetings and workshops to the development of programs designed to address everything from weak readers to at-risk teens.
But not at the only Mississippi school district assigned a perfect 5.0 accreditation level from the Mississippi Department of Education this year.
“You won’t find a lot of programming around here,” said Pontotoc City Schools Superintendent Charles Harrison, who has been with the district for 11 years. “We don’t do a lot of programs. We don’t believe in most of them. It’s this programming that is coming out of Jackson these days that, if it’s not stopped, will eventually lead to the downfall of our schools. It just doesn’t work because it camouflages the real problems. Instead of doing something about a problem, people start programs.”
The Mississippi Department of Education announced Friday that this year’s accreditation levels had been officially approved by the Commission on School Accreditation, a 15-member board made up of 11 educators, along with four non-educators.
Last month, accreditation levels based solely on academic performance, including test scores and graduation rates, were released. Ratings released Friday also took into consideration non-academic requirements, such as maintenance of bus fleets and school facilities. Teacher certification also falls in the non-academic category.
In Northeast Mississippi, there was no change in the accreditation levels released last month.
Emphasizing the individual
What does work, according to Harrison and other Pontotoc educators, is an emphasis on the individual student.
“We believe that the best way to get a student to learn is to have teachers who have a personal relationship with their students – who know their strengths and weaknesses and how those can be best addressed,” he said. “It’s not rocket science – not a magic solution. It takes hard work. But we do it.”
Last year, three Mississippi schools rated a Level 5. This year, Corinth and Ocean Springs both dropped to a 4.9 on the new scale, which considers a broader range of performance indicators. The new scale is also more specific, assigning ratings based on tenths instead of whole numbers. Before this year, for example, a school would receive only a rating of 3. Now, a Level 3 could range from a 3.0 to a 3.9.
Both Corinth and Ocean Springs are challenging a segment of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills language arts test, in which several school districts made weak showings. That appeal is expected to take several months.
“There is an inconsistency in the performance of students,” said Dr. Wayne Gann, superintendent of Corinth Schools. “There is another portion of the test that tested the same skills. There should have been a correlation there. If students did poorly on one part of the test, they should have done poorly on the second part. But that didn’t happen.”
There are high expectations within the Pontotoc district. And the brunt of those expectations fall on the teaching staff.
About once a week, each teacher’s class session is videotaped by an administrator or another school official. After class periods are taped, a team of administrators and fellow teachers sit down and critique the tape.
“We try to be very positive, telling teachers what they do right,” Harrison said. “We’re not there to look for the bad. But we tell them what they need to do to improve.”
Principals work closely with teachers, visiting every classroom during each period of the day.
In some cases, the principal might just stick his head in the door, making his presence known. And in other cases, he might actually view the class – sometimes for as long as 30 or 40 minutes.
Pontotoc Junior High Principal Conrad Duke credits increased administrative involvement with keeping discipline problems down.
“I’m out there on the grounds and in the classroom so I hear things,” the principal of 21 years said. “I can work to stop problems before they start. And since the students see me, they feel comfortable coming in and talking about problems. It’s not unusual for students to tip me off to trouble. And I’ve gotten some anonymous notes.”
Teachers say they don’t see the regular classroom visits and videotaping as a threat to their authority or job security.
“I don’t think we have less liberty than other teachers,” said first-grade teacher Ina Dillard. “We have more. We really have the freedom to do what it takes to help a student. No one ever picks out one program or one method and says, ‘OK, this is correct – the absolute way to do it. I like that.”
Several teachers said there’s very little competition within the district.
“We are a team here,” said Pontotoc High School math teacher Miriam Clark. “There’s no jealousy. I don’t think anyone feels uncomfortable sharing their problems or asking for help. And everyone is willing to give help.”
And the district’s educators don’t try to camouflage their goals, either.
“We know we’re expected to work very, very hard,” said seventh-grade math teacher Patrick Parks, who has been with the district for nine years. “We try to be No. 1 in everything we do. That’s the bottom line.”
Making the most of instructional time has also helped students to do well on tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the ACT, which weigh heavily into the accreditation equation, Harrison said.
“When the bell rings for class to start, teachers aren’t at the front of the room getting ready for class, they are starting their lessons,” he said. “And they don’t stop teaching five minutes before class is over because there’s paper work to do. That might sound like a little thing, but over a period of time, those minutes add up.”
What the critics say
But the district that holds claim to the only perfect accreditation rating in the state has its share of critics.
That criticism is something of which Harrison is well aware.
“I know what they’re saying out there,” he said, grinning at his curriculum director and assistant superintendent.
First, there’s the theory that teachers at the district’s four schools are consumed with teaching the test – even to the point that concepts not addressed on the tests aren’t covered.
Harrison said that criticism isn’t a valid one.
“The test is designed to measure the things that we most want our children to be able to accomplish – what we want them to get from their school,” he said. “So, if teaching those things means that we are teaching the test, then yes, that’s exactly what we are doing. And I’m not ashamed of it.”
And there’s another criticism of the district that’s heard throughout Northeast Mississippi.
Detractors say the school district performs so well because there’s a higher percentage of affluent students who come to school with the advantages that come with having educated parents.
But actually, the number of students who qualify for free or reduced school lunches in the Pontotoc district is relatively high, at 43 percent percent. Only students from low-income families can qualify for the federally-funded programs.
Critics also say the school district does well because it has more money to work with than most. In actuality, the district ranks 148th out of 151 districts in the state in per-student expenditure, spending an average of $3,199 on each student annually, according to information provided to the Mississippi Legislature.
“We’re the most average district you will ever come across. That’s how it would be described by someone looking at the solid demographics – average,” Harrison said. “We’re not working at an advantage here. And we’re not pumping money in here, either. We do what we do with one of the lowest per-student expenditures in the state.”
Looking ahead, Harrison said he knows he has his work cut out for him.
“We have to fight apathy,” he said. “I don’t want anyone in this district to ever feel like they have arrived, because we haven’t. There is still so much to do. We have a lot of problems and we need to address them.”