Six regional schools earn Star ranking

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Most Northeast Mississippi schools and districts stayed the same or showed improved in the state’s new accountability rankings, which were publicly released this morning.
Six schools in the region were ranked as Star schools, the highest ranking in the state’s seven-tier system: Rienzi Elementary, North Pontotoc High School, Oxford High School, Marietta Elementary, Booneville High School and Pontotoc Junior High.
“It is a great boost for our community to have a Star school,” said Pontotoc City Superintendent Adam Pugh, whose district includes Pontotoc Junior High. “We’re going to keep working until every one of our schools is a Star school. It is a step in the right direction. We’re excited and we’re going to celebrate it.”
Nineteen of Northeast Mississippi’s 32 districts and exactly half of its 134 schools that received rankings both last year and this year kept the same level from 2009.
However, of the districts and schools that did change their rankings this year, more than twice as many improved as declined.
The statewide data also showed general improvement, with more districts and schools ranking near the top and fewer near the bottom.
“While we certainly would have liked to announce more significant gains, we continue to make sustained incremental progress,” said state Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham, whose board is expected to approve the rankings at its meeting this morning.
“Clearly the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom in Mississippi is improving and, more importantly, student performance is improving.”
Last year was the first year that the state began ranking schools under the current seven-level model, which ranks schools as Failing, At Risk of Failing, Low Performing, Academic Watch, Successful, High Performing and Star.
Those rankings are given to both schools and districts and are based on student scores on state tests, student growth on those tests and high school graduation rates or completion indices.
The state had three Star districts – Pass Christian, Petal and Enterprise – and 53 Star schools, after having two districts and 34 schools earn the top distinction last year.
Fifty-one percent of districts were ranked Successful and above, compared to 40 percent last year, while 58 percent of schools were ranked Successful or higher, compared to 49 percent last year.
The number of districts ranked At Risk of Failing or Failing fell from 35 percent to 25 percent. The number of schools doing so fell from 26 percent to 20 percent.
“I truly believe that once we get the schools that are underperforming turned around, Mississippi’s education system will begin moving to the top of the national education rankings,” Mississippi Board of Education Chairman Charles McClelland said.
Northeast Mississippi did not have any Star districts this year. Last year, the region had one Star district, Booneville, and two star schools, Booneville High School and Corinth High School. Both the Booneville district and Corinth High School were ranked High Performing this year, showing the difficulty of remaining on top in the state’s model, which places a heavy emphasis on student growth.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t achieve the Star ranking this year,” said Booneville Superintendent Ricky Neaves, whose district narrowly missed that distinction. “It is extremely hard to stay where you are. I do think this will help motivate us to see the areas where we need to spend more time.”
Okolona was the region’s lone Failing district, while Okolona High School and East Oktibbeha County High were each Failing schools.
Nine Northeast Mississippi districts boosted their ratings, while four declined.
That includes two districts, Amory and Benton County, that raised their ranking by two levels, and one, Chickasaw County, that fell by two levels.
Amory went from Academic Watch to High Performing, while Benton County rose from At Risk of Failing to Successful.
“I have to give all of the credit to our teachers and administrators for just keeping things simple, teaching bell to bell, managing distractions and having good classroom instructions,” said Amory Superintendent Gearl Loden.
Chickasaw County fell from Successful to At Risk of Failing. The district’s Quality of Distribution Index, based on test scores, dropped only six points, from 133 to 127, but the district also failed to meet its growth target.
Chickasaw County Superintendent Kathy Young Austin said that funding cuts prevented her from having a summer program in 2009 or an after school-program during the previous school year, meaning that students received less one-on-one tutoring outside of school hours.
Grant money has provided for such programs this year.
The district has also seen class sizes rise over the last two years, but Austin said she delayed her impending retirement to bring up the district’s ranking.
The district is using stimulus money for educational consultants and is developing pacing guides and assessments and improving its curriculum.
“I’m not really happy with my test scores,” she said. “I’ve been a superintendent since 1996, and I’ve never been in a situation where we’re not a successful school district, and we’re not going to stay there.”
In Northeast Mississippi, 46 schools improved their rankings, while 21 declined. Sixteen schools improved by two levels.
The Itawamba County School District saw each of its schools improve their QDI scores and also meet growth.
“We feel good because we had a pretty tough year last year,” Itawamba Superintendent Teresa McNeece said. “We had a lot of things happen in our district that could have been a distraction for our teachers and our students and our community. Our people stepped up, and we’re really proud of what was accomplished during the past year.”
The districts that boasted Star schools noted several keys to their success, including focused teachers who work together in groups to share ideas and a focus on dropout prevention.
Many of the schools had developed assessments to monitor student progress throughout the year and pacing guides to help teachers cover all of the necessary curriculum.
They also used the test’s vocabulary throughout the school year so that students were better prepared for the types of questions they faced on state tests.
This year, the QDI scores required to reach each of the seven levels were the same as last year, but those requirements are expected to rise significantly next year.
“It is a good feeling, but we have to look ahead, ” said Pontotoc County Superintendent Kenneth Roye.

Star schools
Rienzi Elementary
Grades: K-6
Alcorn County School District
Principal: Stan Platt
2009-10 Enrollment: 134
N. Pontotoc High School
Grades: 9-12
Pontotoc County School District
Principal: Roger Smith
2009-10 Enrollment: 486
Oxford High School
Grades: 9-12
Oxford School District
Principal: Michael Martin
2009-10 Enrollment: 896
Marietta Elementary
Grades: K-8
Prentiss County School District
Principal: Cathy Trimble
2009-10 Enrollment: 312
Booneville High School
Grades: 9-12
Booneville School District
Principal: Terry King
2009-10 Enrollment: 400
Pontotoc Junior High
Grades: 7-8
Pontotoc City School District
Principal: Tony Cook
2009-10 Enrollment: 345