By STEVEN NALLEY
State education officials are set to assume control of East Oktibbeha County High School due to consistent failing scores on state school ratings.
A Mississippi Department of Education representative confirmed Tuesday that MDE will place EOCHS under its New Start School Program in light of its recently released failing score on the state’s Quality Distribution Index, but the MDE has not yet determined what this placement will mean for EOCHS, its staff, and its students.
The MDE released a QDI score of 94, a ‘failing’ designation and an F letter grade for EOCHS Friday, and Oktibbeha County School District Superintendent James Covington said he did not know the reasons EOCHS received this grade. According to the OCSD’s internal information, he said, practice tests showed promise of an improved QDI score.
“Each time, we were making gains,” Covington said. “The (practice test) scores did indicate we were moving in the right direction. We’re not certain what happened on the actual assessment.”
MDE Communications Director Pete Smith said the Mississippi Board of Education discussed EOCHS’s results at its meeting Thursday. This is the third consecutive year EOCHS has ranked as a failing school, and under the New Start School Program and Conversion Charter School Act of 2010, Smith said, the MDE has the authority to set timelines and make plans for the school. Smith said the board and the MDE have not yet determined the nature of those plans or the timeline for their implementation.
“It’s my understanding this will be the first instance of a New Start school since 2010 when the law was passed,” Smith said. “Right now, the only thing I can (say) is they are placing EOCHS under the New Start label and are in the process of reviewing their options as to how to move forward while making sure the students are protected.”
In a January 2012 Starkville Daily News report, Laura Jones, MDE bureau manager of school improvement, said EOCHS would be taken over by the state under the New Start program if the school received another failing designation with a QDI below 100 for 2012.
“With the New Start School Program, if it stays intact and in place, and if the high school does not make the four points (above its 2011 QDI score of 96) to move out of the failing box, then everybody in the school is fired,” Jones said in January. “I mean everybody — custodial staff, cafeteria staff, teachers — is fired. In that case, my boss, Dr. Larry Drawdy, is in charge of hiring a new principal, and Dr. Drawdy and the new principal hire a new staff. Then, Dr. Drawdy basically runs that school.”
In January, Jones also said the MDE saw flaws in the New Start law and hoped to have it altered or removed, but Smith said the law has not been amended since 2010. Smith also said the firings Jones described are just one option on the state board’s table. Smith said Jones was not available at the MDE office for comment Tuesday and MDE will not be able to disclose more details about options for EOCHS until the state board makes concrete decisions.
“The main thing they’re doing is establishing a timeline to find out what decisions will happen next with EOCHS,” Smith said. “Whatever decision the board makes, it has to take into account the educational interests of these students.”
Covington said MDE has not given him information on the implications of EOCHS’s New Start status either. For now, he said, school is still in session at EOCHS, and he does not expect the scenario Jones described to come true.
“In my best estimate, I just do not foresee that happening,” Covington said. “New teachers are already in place. Buses are running; teachers are teaching; kids are learning. We’re (several) weeks into the school year.”
Covington said it is important to note that some good news for the OCSD has come from MDE’s latest assessments. The district’s overall designation has risen from an F to a D, from “low-performing” to “academic watch,” he said, and West Oktibbeha County Elementary School received a B and was named a high-performing school for its 176-point QDI.
“If given the time, we’ll make sure (this same) growth happens at East High,” Covington said. “It didn’t happen last year, but given the time, we’ll make it happen. Everything is not doom and gloom. Boys and girls are learning in the OCSD. We have problems at East High — I’ll be the first to recognize that — but we’re going to fix those problems.”