GEARL LODEN: Three new Tupelo school system initiatives planned

By Gearl Loden

Over the course of the past year, I have had the privilege of listening and learning from many stakeholders – students, teachers, parents and community members. We are fortunate to live in a community where so many care deeply about our students and our schools. Flourishing communities are the result of thriving schools where people stay engaged and ask difficult questions. In the coming school year, you will see three initiatives in our schools to address some of the issues raised and to more effectively serve our students.
The first is a commitment to expand arts integration in Pre-kindergarten through 8th grades. Subjects like reading, math, and science will be taught in and through the arts. Teaching in this manner provides a way for a child’s brain to process information from the world into meaningful knowledge. Creative writing, movement, music, and visual arts give children a chance to make sense of words, images and abstract concepts; it levels the playing field for students.
For example, a third grader is introduced to new adjectives by listening to different types of music while painting. A fourth grader might learn fractions by studying the famous works of artist Pablo Picasso.
Academic growth, social and emotional development, and community engagement can be achieved through arts integration. The ancient proverb, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand,” is arts integration at its core.
The second initiative is taking a focused look at early identification of at-risk students in kindergarten and first grade and exploring the option of retention. This will require difficult conversations with parents and guardians. We believe that repeating a year in a given grade may be in the best interest of a child in order to make meaningful gains and solidly master grade-level skills, especially in the critical subjects of reading and math.
Many of these students will be placed in transitional environments where they would be able catch up and be on grade- level by the end of the year. There is a growing body of research that suggests that students who repeat an early grade may achieve higher rates of proficiency in the third grade, than they would had they not repeated a grade.
Lastly, beginning next year, students in kindergarten through 5th grade will have the opportunity to participate in instructional-level grouping, also known as flexible grouping. This is a strategy for differentiating instruction allowing students to work together in a variety of ways, and in a number of arrangements. Groupings may be whole group, small group, triads, partners, individual, teacher led or student led. Grouping will depend on instructional activities, learning goals, and student needs.
When used effectively and monitored closely, this strategy allows students to learn and grow according to their skills and also encourages continual remixing of assigned groups throughout the year as assessments are given.
This practice will also allow our teachers to tailor the pace and content of instruction to both lower- and higher- achieving students. Teachers can provide needed repetition and reinforcement for low-achieving students, and an advanced and more challenging level of instruction to high achievers with our goal for all students to be on or above grade level.
Our students deserve our very best ideas and best practices. It is my expectation that these initiatives, when fully established, will support our District’s maxim that if students cannot learn the way we teach, then we will teach the way they learn.
Gearl Loden, Ph.D., is superintendent of the Tupelo Public Schools. Contact him at Tupelo Public Schools, 72 South Green St., Tupelo, MS 38801