Reorganization gets first report card

TUPELO – Under an overcast sky on Thursday afternoon, Thomas Street Elementary teacher Rochelle Wallace stood at a side entrance to the school with a bullhorn in one hand and a handheld radio in the other.
As fellow teacher Cindy Beasley signaled Wallace’s radio to let her know a student’s parent had arrived, Wallace announced that student’s name and a color.
The youngster then walked along a covered walkway to the sidewalk where other teachers stood and held a big wooden circles, each painted a different color: red or purple or yellow or orange.
The students walked to the color that was called with his or her name, and there would be the parent’s car, waiting to pick up the child.
It was a procedure that Thomas Street Elementary Principal Debbie Davis had implemented years ago when she was the principal at Pierce Street Elementary.
But when Davis moved to Thomas Street this fall after the Tupelo Public School District reorganized its elementary schools, she had to tweak the procedure to fit her new school.
And she and her staff had to teach it to a new student body and parent base.
“At first, the students would go to the color of the car, not the color we called,” Wallace said. “We had to get them used to the system of going to the right color. Now they know.”
This year, the TPSD shuffled its schools, going from seven kindergarten to third-grade schools and three fourth- to sixth-grade schools to five K-2 schools, four 3-5 schools and one sixth-grade school.
Among the goals was to provide long-term demographic balance and to implement a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten to third grade.
It also created a clean feeder-school system. Unlike the previous system, all students from one K-2 school will move together to the same 3-5 school, instead of switching classmates every time they changed schools.

Not too bad
Through one quarter of the school year, parents and principals involved have seen advantages to the new system. But change is never easy, and they’ve seen frustrations or kinks that have had to be worked through.
For Davis, one of the biggest issues has been bringing the procedures for bus, car pool and day care pickup to the new school and getting parents and children used to them.
There has also been the trick of melding together a new staff of teachers. At Rankin Elementary, for instance, Principal Brenda Johnson has had to merge together staffs from four different campuses. Only four teachers remained at the school from last year.
That meant a lot of of time spent together over the summer, playing team-building games, working on curriculum and going to meals together.
Johnson said she made a point to spend one-on-one time with all of her teachers, asking about their strengths and learning about their families. Several principals have said they’ve placed a strong emphasis on building new faculty groups into a team. The change has, of course, also meant movement for students.
Lawhon fifth-grader Edie Thomas found herself in a position of having to attend four schools in four years. Last year, she was at Carver as a fourth-grader, but because Carver was rezoned as a K-2 school, Thomas had to move to Lawhon for fifth grade.
Next year, she will be at Milam, the TPSD’s sixth-grade school, then at Tupelo Middle School.
Thomas’ mother, Mary Thomas, said her daughter was originally frustrated by the upheaval. Then Mary Thomas had an idea. You know what, Thomas told her daughter, Dairy Kream is located near Lawhon.
“That took the anxiety out of going to a new school,” said Thomas, who admitted that she’s spent a fortune in buying ice cream.
“She loves it, loves her teachers, loves her school and is excited about a new school next year,” Thomas said. “She has accepted it really well, and it doesn’t seem to bother her.”
The movement has been harder for others. Some students have had to leave long-time friends. Others have to pass schools closer to them to now attend schools located farther away.
Edie’s school next year, Milam, has had its own adjustments to make, going from a 4-6 school to the district’s lone sixth-grade school.
Principal Travis Beard said he and his staff have set the school up so that it helps prepare students for middle school.
They’ve made pods that allow kids to rotate classrooms for language arts, math, science and social studies classes. They’ve also added programs for band, string music, choral music and Spanish.
Among the challenges for Beard is building continuity with a base of parents and students who are only at the school for one year.
The adjustment at Church Street Elementary has been different. Principal Kay Collins stayed at the same school and kept much of her staff. But while the school merely shifted from a K-3 school to a K-2 school, rezoning brought her an almost entirely different group of students.
“We have to build a trust with them that we had with the students before,” Collins said. “It will happen, but it just takes time. They don’t know us and we don’t know their families. We just need them to trust us because we have their children’s interest at heart.”

Learning curve
All of the principals affected by the reorganization have faced similar scenarios. In years past, they had only one new grade of students to meet each year. Now, they may have an entire student body that they’ve never met before.
Davis said her staff spent time over the summer speaking with parents to better learn children’s learning styles before placing them in classes. Lawhon Elementary Principal Christy Carroll and her teachers made home visits to the residences of all new students who expressed an interest.
Using school facilities for new grades has forced another adjustment. Carver Elementary went from being a 4-6 school to a K-2 school, leaving the school with playground equipment that is better suited for older children.
Rankin made the opposite change, going from K-3 to 3-5. Johnson said she and her teachers have spent a lot of time replacing the art work and even furniture to make it more age appropriate.
“Before we had a lot of primary colors,” Johnson said. “They don’t want to be treated like little kids, they want to be treated like they are older.”
At Milam, the school had to make certain staircases one-way passages in order to ease congestion for the older students.
Schools that had significant grade-level switches also had to put in new clubs appropriate for students of different ages.
Principals said parents will appreciate the feeder-school model more next year when students rising from one school to another get to do so as a group.
Many said they are working together with the principals at their corresponding feeder school to plan activites that can further ease that transition.
Beverly Williams, whose fourth-grade son and sixth-grade daughter have both gone through the reorganization, said the growing pains of the new system have been manageable.
“I expected the first year to be a transition year,” Williams said. “I think everyone seems happy where they are.”

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

This year, the TPSD shuffled its schools, going from seven kindergarten to third-grade schools and three fourth- to sixth-grade schools to five K-2 schools, four 3-5 schools and one sixth-grade school. Here is how it broke down:
2008-09
K-3
Joyner
Church Street
Lawhon
Parkway
Pierce Street
Rankin
Thomas Street

4-6
Carver
Lawndale
Milam

2009-10
K-2
Carver
Joyner
Church Street
Parkway
Thomas Street

3-5
Lawhon
Lawndale
Pierce Street
Rankin

6
Milam

All students then go to Tupelo Middle School (7-8) and Tupelo High School (9-12).

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal