MARTHA CHENEY: Corinth sets sterling example in its public school system

By Martha Cheney

During the past year, news from Corinth High School emerged in various conversations. Hearing positive reports from a Mississippi school district amid all the negative conversation about our schools in general intrigued me. Since the superintendent, Dr. Lee Childress, and I have been friends for years I decided that a trip to Corinth might be fun. So I called Lee and met with him and the high school principal, Russ Elam. Here is what I learned:
• In December 2010, the Mississippi Department of Education convened representatives from seven Mississippi school districts. The meeting was led by a National Center on Education and the Economy representative. The proposal before the group was that their districts become part of a pilot program sponsored by NCEE. Four states are participating in this opportunity: Connecticut, Mississippi, Arizona and Kentucky. The schools were asked to review three potential programs (University of Cambridge International Exams, International Baccalaureate and ACT Quality Core) and select one for implementation. Gulfport, Clarksdale and Corinth decided to participate.
• The decision-making process that Corinth engaged in is exemplary. The first step was the traditional presentation to the board which Dr. Childress made two days after the MDE meeting. It is significant to note that no external consultants led this process.
• The second step was the selection of a program. This phase of the process was not traditional. Corinth High School teachers were asked to review the three models and select one. NCEE provided webinars by each of the three providers explaining the programs available for schools. CHS staff selected the Cambridge Program because of the rigor and because the offering better met the needs of a diverse population.
Corinth leadership continues to provide the support and training required for a successful transition. In May a team of four teachers were trained in Phoenix, and four teachers, the superintendent and principal visited Ronald Reagan Doral, Rockledge, and St. Augustine high schools in Florida.
• The Cambridge Model itself is impressive. Cambridge is an international pre-university program developed by the University of Cambridge. Examinations have been offered for over 50 years in 60 countries. The plan provides flexibility for a wide range of students and varied paths allowing students to successfully pursue their areas of interests and strengths. Regardless of the path chosen by the student the goal is successful preparation for a productive life. The Gates Foundation has provided funding to the University of Michigan for evaluation of the work.
On the drive home I composed several mental thank-you notes:
• U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan for finding a way to support local professionalism, innovation and accountability without imposing national control on the process.
• The Gates Foundation for defining a private sector role in encouraging standards-based change in our educational system.
• Mississippi Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham for supporting local innovation that reflects a bottom-up approach to achieving excellence and accountability while stimulating the professional growth of local educators.
• But most of all I want to thank Corinth teachers and leaders. As I walked the halls of CHS I watched diverse students (55 percent Caucasian, 33 percent African-American and 5 percent Hispanic) engaged in learning. I talked with a math teacher, a graduate of Tupelo High School, who acknowledged with pride that the transition has been challenging but energizing. I met a coach who missed a ball game to participate in training.
It was a very good day. I often wish that I did not care about Mississippi’s public schools – but I do. We continue to do so many things wrong. It is heartening to see us doing something right.
Martha Cheney writes occasionally on education issues. She is a retired public school educator and lives near Tupelo. Contact her at mcheney1@bellsouth.net.