By Chris Kieffer
VERONA – Last year was difficult for teachers and administrators at Verona Elementary School.
When the kindergarten to fourth-grade school received an “F” grade from the Mississippi Department of Education in the fall, it hit hard.
“The hardest thing with the ‘F’ was explaining to outsiders we weren’t an ‘F’ school,” said Verona Principal Temeka Shannon. “We received a rating of an ‘F’ by the formula the state uses. We were by no means an ‘F’ school, but because we were labeled an ‘F,’ we had a point to prove.
“We knew this was a prime opportunity to get our message across.”
The school’s efforts to prove that point were fruitful. When the new rankings came out in September, it had risen to a “C.” The 510-student school improved on all four of its state tests – third- and fourth-grade language and math – including gains of at least 20 percentage points on three of the four.
Its Quality of Distribution Index – based on how students score on the tests – rose by 21 points to 157.
“The scores validated that the teachers were doing their job, they were teaching students, and students were learning,” said Assistant Principal Paulette Agnew. “Validation is great. We just needed to show the community.”
Among the greatest changes cited by Shannon, Agnew and several teachers was a more robust use of student data. Written on the walls in Agnew’s office are the names of each of the school’s fourth-graders – the only group who took last year’s test – and where they scored. Another chart tracks the progress of students who score in the school’s bottom 25 percent.
Results from past tests also are used to diagnose the specific skills that cause each student to struggle. That information helps tailor lessons to individual needs.
“You can see every child in the school on a sheet of paper and where they are and where they need to go,” said fourth-grade inclusion teacher Margaret Parker. “It is like we’ve done an individual plan for each student.”
The use of data wasn’t new, Shannon said, but it went much deeper than it had in the past. She credited Lee County Federal Programs Director Casey Dye with helping them analyze it.
“Instruction was more differentiated and rigorous than ever,” Shannon said. “…The data tells me this student is struggling in the area of vocabulary. What are you doing for this student specifically? Teachers had to write so many different lesson plans.”
Shannon also challenged her teachers to add more complexity and rigor to their lessons.
It wasn’t an easy change for teachers. Third-grade language teacher Jerrion Smith said she often woke up in the middle of the night thinking about what she needed to do.
“It was hard,” said Shalon Clark-Ruth, who also teaches third-grade language. “We have refocused our minds. We focused on each student. It was trial and error.
“As difficult as it was, when the test scores came back, it was a flood of relief. We did it.”
The biggest structural change was a switch to a team-teaching model for third- and fourth grade. Instead of students staying with the same teacher for the entire day, they rotated between two. One focused on language, and the other concentrated on math.
“It was helpful,” Clark-Ruth said. “…You had this one focus. We used to teach it all, and our focus was divided.
“You can put all of your energy and effort and talent into finding strategies and methods for teaching language arts.”
Consistency was important too, said Clark-Ruth and fourth-grade language teacher Lauren Golding. It become especially important, they said, since a large number of students come from low-income families and often face inconsistent home lives.
“Our administrators focus on teachers being here every day,” Golding said. “That is a big thing for our students to know they will see your face every day, and you put as much effort to get here as they do. We had to push ourselves so our kids have consistency in their lives here.”
The school also had help from a team of consultants from the Mississippi Department of Education – Martha Spearman, Patsy Livingston and Larry Johnson – who made regular visits and provided insight.
“We felt like we had support to encourage us and motivate us,” Shannon said. “They helped us see specific needs, narrow the focus and never lose sight of our target. It gave us another set of eyes.”
Superintendent Jimmy Weeks also helped focus the efforts, Shannon said, encouraging the school to concentrate on making a few changes and sticking with them rather than making dramatic changes midstream.
Now the school must continue to grow and to show that last year’s rise wasn’t a momentary blip. Shannon said the goal is to become a “B” school next year.
Meanwhile, the district will try to apply lessons learned from Verona’s improvement to Plantersville Middle School, which was ranked “F” this year. Verona students feed into Plantersville.
The biggest lessons, Shannon said, are to identify needs, use data to make decisions about academic interventions and provide training for teachers in the areas where they need it most.
“You need to have a vision and stay focused,” Agnew said. “Motivate students and staff.”
When Mississippi’s legislature mandated a switch to an “A” to “F” grading system to rank the state’s schools, legislators said it would put more pressure on struggling schools to improve.
Shannon said she does not like the system because she feels the school was performing better than an “F.” But, she reluctantly admits, it did provide motivation.
“Having an ‘F’ gave us energy,” she said. “That gave me the fire I needed. We were more motivated than anything else.”