By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
SHANNON – Less than 54 percent of Shannon High School’s freshman class in 2007 graduated in May 2011.
The most recent graduation data available from the Mississippi Department of Education ranks the Lee County school as the fourth-worst in the state. Its four-year graduation rates for the two previous classes were each less than 56 percent.
Meanwhile, fewer than 51 percent of the school’s students passed state tests in biology and in English II last spring.
Those numbers have placed the 600-student high school in a special class of under-performing schools that require extra attention from the state department of education. They’ve also caught the attention of district and school administrators who say something needs to be done.
“Of course there is a sense of urgency,” said Superintendent Jimmy Weeks.
Because of its graduation rate, the school was named a “priority school,” a special distinction given by the MDE to 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
That means a liaison from the MDE will visit the school about 20 times a year for the next three years, and administrators must submit a detailed plan of how they will meet 48 indicators over that period.
“I think there is a sense of urgency for everyone from central office to our teachers,” said Principal Bill Rosenthal. “They’ve been told these changes need to be made.”
The school has formed a 12-member leadership team and a six-member data team that have each met weekly to discuss progress. The data team features teachers examining what is and isn’t working.
The school also has lengthened special classes for students struggling in math and language from 45 minutes to 90 minutes each day. Free hour-long tutoring is now available after school in 10 different subject areas.
“This is a long-term commitment,” Assistant Principal Betsy Grubbs said. “We are not trying to make quick fixes, we are trying to make changes that will last, sustainable changes. Everything won’t be fixed at the end of the year. It takes time.”
Wilie Bob Gates, who has a daughter in eighth grade, recently addressed the district’s school board about his concerns for Shannon’s graduation rates and test scores. He said he believes parents must be involved in solutions.
“The school has never put forth an effort to have more communication with the parents,” he said. “If it had, what we have now would never have happened.”
The school recently formed community-involvement and parent-involvement committees that meet monthly, Grubbs said. The community committee’s goal is to discuss how it would like Shannon to look in 15 years and what steps must be taken to get there. The parent committee allows any parent to provide input, she said.
The most glaring need is to fix the graduation rate. Weeks said a contributing factor is that Shannon and Verona, which feeds into SHS, both have large migrant populations.
“People who live here year-in and year-out stay in school and graduate or get a GED,” he said. “When you have a community with a large amount of rental property that you can rent for a week, people show up and leave.”
Last year, Weeks said, the school had about 100 students who entered and left at different points during the year.
That can’t be an excuse, Grubbs said.
“With the data team and leadership team, we are only discussing changes in our control,” she said. “We can’t control a transient population so that doesn’t get discussed.”