CLINTON - Every morning, a handful of students at a junior high in this central Mississippi city attend a special tutorial homeroom.
The 20-minute class at Sumner Hill Junior High School, a ninth grade-only school, gives extra instruction to those who are struggling in biology or algebra, the two subjects in which freshmen take state standardized tests.
Teachers at the 366-student school meet every two weeks to discuss which pupils need the extra intervention. Students rotate into and out of the class, which is held while other students are in their regular homeroom.
The intervention was successful last year when Sumner Hill had the best state test scores in Mississippi.
In a state that struggles to close achievement gaps, the school with the best test scores had 54 percent black students. Twenty-nine percent of its students lived in poverty.
As Tupelo tries to narrow its own achievement gap between white and black students, the Clinton Public School District serves as an example of what is possible.
The school system, which includes Sumner Hill, is one of four in Mississippi to be named a Star district, the highest ranking given by the state. It did so with similar demographics to Tupelo's schools.
Of Clinton's 4,572 students, 50 percent are black and 44 percent are white. Tupelo has more students, 7,562, with the same ratio: 50 percent are black and 44 percent are white.
Clinton does have a lower poverty rate. Thirty-four percent of that district's students live in poverty, compared to 49 percent in Tupelo.
Tupelo's black and low-income students each score at much lower rates than those in Clinton.
The Daily Journal analyzed scores from this spring's Mississippi Curriculum Test, Second Edition, the standardized test taken by all third- to eighth-grade students in the state. The newspaper averaged the scores of the 12 tests taken in every school district - English and math for each of the six grades - and broke down the results by race and by economics. The average is slightly skewed because it assumes that exactly the same number of students took the test in every grade.
In Tupelo, 39 percent of black students and 39 percent of economically disadvantaged students scored at least proficient, the level considered successful on those tests. In Clinton, 66 percent of black students were proficient or better, as were 63.5 percent of students receiving federal meal subsidies.
That discrepancy is a large reason why Clinton's schools were ranked at the top of the state and Tupelo's were in the middle. If Tupelo is going to regain its past prestige as one of Mississippi's premiere school districts, it will need to do a better job of educating students from these two subgroups.
Special interventions, like the algebra and biology tutorial class at Sumner Hill, became a big part of Clinton's approach to reducing its achievement gap, Assistant Superintendent Tim Martin said.
Beginning around 2004, Martin said the district realized classroom teachers would not have the time to adequately serve students who really needed help while also carrying out their other responsibilities. The district pooled resources from federal and local funds and hired multiple intervention teachers at all of its elementary and junior high schools. Those teachers had the responsibility to provide special help to struggling students.
"If we can get to the students before they are in second or third grade, we do a really good job of getting them up to grade level," he said.
Martin cites the success of the interventions by noting that only 4 percent of the district's students scored minimal, the lowest category on the state tests.
Clinton Superintendent Phil Burchfield said the other piece is having high expectations across the district. It was a message repeated by principals and teachers throughout the district in separate interviews.
"Our motto here is that excellence is our only option," Burchfield said. "That is stapled on every bulletin board and is on every letter sent out of the office. That sets the tempo.
"For us to think anything less would be saying that our kids in Clinton can't compete with any other kids in our state, our nation, our world. We think they can."
Said Sumner Hill biology teacher Lynda Collins: "If our kids sat in other districts, they would be shocked to know that not everyone is pushed at that level."
Burchfield noted it helps that the district's schools aren't zoned but are subdivided by grade level. It has one school for all of its kindergarten and first-graders, one for its second- and third-graders, etc. That means that neighborhoods don't determine where students attend school, and it eliminates questions about equity, Burchfield said.
Teachers at those schools can then meet regularly to plan lessons, making sure that every student is learning the same things. Those planning sessions play a big role, Sumner Hill Principal Austin Brown said, noting that teachers are able to discuss performances of individual students and strategies to reach those who are struggling.
Meanwhile, closer to Tupelo, the Pontotoc City, Clay County and Tishomingo County school districts also have had much success in educating black and poor students at high levels.
In Pontotoc City, 66 percent of black students scored at least proficient, a total that was the fourth highest in Mississippi for black students. Seventy percent of economically disadvantaged students scored proficient, which was third highest in the state for that subgroup, according to the Daily Journal's analysis.
"The key for us really is our teachers," said Pontotoc City School Superintendent Karen Tutor. "If they have a kid in their classroom who is struggling with something or who is not getting it, they do whatever they need to do, stay extra time or work with parents."
High expectations are also important, she said.
"Kids come to school with a lot of stuff, but regardless, they have to learn to read, learn to think and learn to do what they have to do," she said. "The only way to do that is to establish those high expectations, and they have to be the same of every child."
Tishomingo County ranked sixth for students in poverty, with 65.75 percent scoring proficient. Although that district is only 3-percent black, those black students had the second best scores for black students in the state, with 69 percent of them scoring proficient.
In Clay County, 61 percent of black students were proficient, which ranked eighth among black students in Mississippi.
Clay County School Superintendent Mae Brewer said that her district's small size allows it to better work with individual students. She also credits a pre-kindergarten program the district recently started that is available for any 4-year-old child who lives in the school district.
"I think our small class size has a lot to do with us closing the achievement gap," she said. "The teachers have more time to spend with the children who need the extra help. I think that has been really tremendous for us."
It was an attempt to create a smaller-class environment that led Sumner Hill in Clinton to implement its intervention homeroom class. Its size is usually kept to 10 or 15, and students are placed there based on how they perform on assessment tests they take every two weeks.
The class isn't just for students who are failing but is for those who need extra work on a specific skill. During the intervention, teachers review vocabulary words and concepts covered during the regular class.
Anthony Grishby, 14, said that while he was in the biology intervention homeroom, they reviewed with flash cards and played various educational games.
"I'm glad to be in homeroom because it helps us out," he said. "I wasn't doing as well as I could. Ever since I have been in there, my grades have improved."
WHY IT MATTERS
SUCCESSFUL MODELS Clinton has similar demographics to Tupelo and is a Star district. What can be learned from that district? (Story above)
TPSD EFFORTS School district leaders say they are focused on the issue. Click here for the story.
CITY EFFORTS Mayor and City Council have begun to address Tupelo’s changing demographics. Click here for the story.
For archives of the series and further discussion, visit http://djournal.com/pages/education_special.