Tupelo schools need to be ‘great,’ Shaver says

TUPELO – Mere days before last Monday’s release of the state’s new school accountability rankings, Tupelo Public School District Superintendent Randy Shaver already had made a bold statement about next year’s rankings.
This year’s rankings listed the TPSD as “Academic Watch,” the fourth of seven tiers ranked by the state. Forty percent of districts in the state ranked in the three tiers above the TPSD.
Those rankings are determined by a combination of achievement on state standardized tests, student improvement on those tests and graduation rates. This year, there are two Star districts – Booneville and Pass Christian – 21 High Performing districts, 38 Successful districts and 37 Academic Watch districts. Fifty-three districts ranked in the three tiers below Academic Watch.
Yet, Shaver, in his first year in Tupelo after serving as a superintendent in North Carolina, said he expects dramatic improvement under his watch.
“If there are two districts that are higher performing than Tupelo any time under my tenure, I’m not going to be satisfied,” Shaver said. “Our goal is always to be the highest performing. We owe it to our students, and we owe it to our city to do that.”
Because the rankings are determined by state tests taken by students the previous year, next year’s rankings will be the first of Shaver’s tenure. The superintendent said he isn’t predicting a dramatic turnaround in one year, but the district must begin making incremental improvement and he will not be satisfied until it is on the top.
“I don’t think there is a single individual who works in the Tupelo Public School District who is not working toward that,” said David Meadows, a consultant for the district. “That will help us fulfill that role of trust that we hopefully have with our community.”
A large part of Shaver’s plan for improvement already is under way – a thorough audit of the district’s curriculum by an outside organization and an increased use of technology to better reach students of all learning types.
The curriculum audit by Indiana-based Phi Delta Kappa International began over the summer and its results are expected in February. Its objective is to discover gaps in what is being taught from grade to grade and to make sure that what is being taught matches both the state curriculum and the material that the state is testing.
“What we have to do is to make sure that we’re teaching the state curriculum not the textbook,” Shaver said. “There is a huge difference, and I don’t think people realize that.”
Corresponding with the new curriculum will be benchmarks that can be given to students throughout the year to assess their strengths and weaknesses on that curriculum before the state tests.
“If we don’t do the benchmarks and the alignment, then the test we give at the end of the year is an autopsy, and it shouldn’t be,” Shaver said. “It should not be a surprise at all. We should know before we take the test what our kids’ performance is going to be.”
In October, the district announced that all sixth- to 12th-grade students would receive MacBook laptops next school year as part of a plan to change traditional classrooms into 21st-century learning environments. The key to those environments is to have students working together and learning from each other instead of always sitting in rows and listening to lectures from teachers, Shaver said.

Student centered
“It is important that teachers understand that classrooms have to become student-centered and not teacher-centered, which means students take ownership of their own learning and teachers guide them through that,” Shaver said.
Lessons should be built around questions that students work together to answer, Shaver said, and techniques should be used to stimulate all five senses.
Beginning next year, the district will implement an Advanced Placement curriculum for grades K-12 in order to increase rigor. That will include pre-AP courses and individualized instruction for younger students. Shaver said he would like to see the high school have as many as 23 AP classes, which are much more challenging and provide students a chance to earn college credit. He said all students must be encouraged to take AP courses.
One of the key components of the state’s new ranking system is that it measures how much each individual student grows from year to year. This forces districts to not only focus their efforts on their lowest performing students, but also to push their highest-performers.
TPSD Assistant Superintendent Diana Ezell said that while the district has paid attention to its gifted and challenge students, it hasn’t pushed them enough.
“Maybe we haven’t worried as much about those children because they always get it so we’re not expecting as much from them as we should,” Ezell said.
Teachers are the biggest key to student performance, Shaver said. Shaver said the district has “great teachers” and teachers that are “willing to become great.”
He said there will be an increased emphasis on professional development to make the district’s “good” teachers even better.
“We’re going to make great teachers out of the good teachers that we already have because we do have good teachers and we have good principals and we have a good school system,” Shaver said. “We need to become great.”

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

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