After spending the past three years as the Lee County School District’s assistant superintendent, Steele agreed to take a new challenge when the district selected him to lead one of its lowest-performing schools.
When he steps into the spot where hallways merge into a “T,” he is in the midst of bodies whizzing in different directions on their way to class. Some head to his left, some to his right and others traverse the hallway behind him.
As the 2010-11 school year commences, Shannon Middle School is standing in its own metaphoric hallway, poised in a narrow corridor as changes whirl by all around it. A new principal and assistant principal have begun efforts to give the school its own identity, schedules have been altered to allow extra literacy instruction and roughly two-thirds of the student body is new to the school.
Now, the looming question is in which direction will the school move?
“I’ll try hard every day” said Steele, who brings 31 years of education experience to the job. “The teachers will try hard every day, and I want the students to try hard every day. If we do that, we’ll be successful.”
The Lee County School District’s efforts to improve student achievement at the 270-student sixth- to eighth-grade school accelerated during the spring when it applied for a federal School Improvement Grant that would have brought the school $1.25 million annually for three years.
The grant attempt was unsuccessful, but that did not eliminate turnaround attempts at a school whose 2009 test scores were in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s middle and high schools.
Steele moved from the central office to become the school’s principal, and former Pontotoc High School Principal Rodney Spears was named its assistant principal. Efforts were made to separate the school from neighboring Shannon High School and the emphasis on literacy was increased.
The sixth-grade class from Shannon Elementary was moved to the middle school that previously housed only seventh- and eighth-graders.
“Things will improve,” said Lee County Schools Director of Federal Programs Becky Hendrix, who combined with Middle School Curriculum Coordinator Kathy Mask for much of the work of compiling the grant. “They may not improve at the rate they would have with the grant, but they will improve.”
Near bottom of state
Last year, Shannon Middle School was one of two district schools (along with Plantersville) to be ranked “At Risk of Failing,” the second-to-last of seven levels in Mississippi’s accountability model.
That ranking was based on test scores from the 2008-09 school year, when more than 72 percent of seventh-graders failed to score proficient on the state standardized test in language arts and 68 percent of seventh-graders fell below that mark in math. That test measures students’ achievement level as minimal, basic, proficient or advanced.
As poor as those scores were, they were better than the prior year’s class, in which 79.3 percent of seventh-graders scored below proficient in language arts and 81.4 percent did so in math.
The results of last year’s state test will not be released until Friday, but Superintendent Mike Scott said preliminary data shows the school made progress. He said that will build momentum for this year’s efforts.
“We know from the data we have that those teachers did a really good job last year,” Scott said.
Separation of schools
Until recently, Shannon Middle School fell under the purview of Shannon High School, whose building connects to the middle school’s.
Shannon Middle was made a separate school a year and a half ago, but high school students continued to hold classes in the front hallway of its building.
That was one of the first changes made by Steele, who had been principal at Saltillo High School for 61⁄2 years before moving to the district’s central office.
Not only were high school classes removed from the school, but 9th- to 12th-grade students also are no longer allowed to be inside its building. The school was also given its own bell system and intercom, independent of the high school for the first time.
The idea was to give the middle school its own sense of identity and to make its students feel like the big guys on campus.
“I think it lets our children focus more on being their age and on school without the distraction of other students,” said intervention teacher Denise Wiseman, who is in her 16th year at the school.
It will also help with what Spears said is central to turn-around efforts.
“Some of the things I see that are needed are the right focus and a sense of school pride,” Spears said.
Most students in the school will receive two hours and 15 minutes of literacy instruction each day this year. For the first time, the school will offer an additional 90-minute block of intensive language arts instruction to complement students’ 45-minute English classes. Steele said that as many as 75 percent of the school’s students will receive this additional instruction, which will replace electives, such as chorus, art or newspaper.
Literacy specialist Ashley Finch will teach many of these classes. For half of the period, she will reinforce core material learned in English class. For the other half, she’ll focus on reading skills and vocabulary.
“I’m excited about the class because I feel like our students need as much reading exposure as possible,” said Finch, who is in her eighth year at the school. “I think it will pay off.”
Because the school added a sixth grade for the first time and its seventh-graders are also new to the school, the only returning students are about 90 eighth-graders.
Several teachers and administrators said this makes the school ripe for a culture change.
“It gives us a chance to implement new ideas,” said school counselor Nickeda Shelton, who is in her fourth year at the school. “With the new students being in the majority, we can get them to carry the new ideas out, and they can bleed into the minority. They’re new, and the principals are new. It puts us all on a level playing field.”
Even with a different student body, change won’t be easy or even guaranteed. As the bell rings on the school year and students return to Shannon Middle’s hallways, Steele acknowledges the task ahead will be challenging, but he believes success is possible.
“I don’t think we can jump leaps and bounds but what we are looking for is good solid growth every year,” Steele said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or email@example.com.