By CARL SMITH
Three weeks into her interim conservator role, Jayne Sargent says short- and long-term culture and policy changes are key to improving the Oktibbeha County School District and preparing its students for the future.
Some changes, like building strong board policies which fall in line with Mississippi Department of Education requirements, can be accomplished quicker than others, she said, but true success will come when the entire community buys into the school system and public education.
In September, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency in the county school district following a MDE investigation in response to continued low performance and academic failures. Sargent said MDE examined district compliance with 30 standards and found OCSD was in violation of all but one of those areas, including accreditation, open meetings policies and data reporting.
The school district received poor marks ranging from academic delivery and success, she said, to building cleanliness and sanitation levels.
Many of the violations cited by MDE, she said, reflect poor organization under the district’s previous leadership. Once the state takeover began, former OCSD Superintendent James Covington and the district’s five-person board were relieved of their duties.
“We have to be sure that the standards that are set by (MDE) are adhered to. So much of what I saw in that report … it just looks like organization was a big problem,” she said. “Some things had been done that were undocumented … That suggests that board policy might not be as guiding as it needs to be, … that the goals of the district are not clearly articulated throughout the district.”
First and foremost, Sargent says she will craft a strategic plan for the district. MDE noted, she said, the absence of this crucial guidepost.
“The truth of the matter is I’ve been here for three weeks. I’ve been putting out fires and leading blind — leaning on past experience,” she said referring to the absence of a district strategic plan. “This coming Thursday, I will write a vision statement which will include three to five goals — something guiding — and bring it to our district. We will tweak it together so we can make it their plan.
“I’m going on past experience with areas I know there are inefficiencies that have to be fixed,” she added. “I feel like the first pitch at home plate is the most important right now. I have got to get a little more structure before I can lead. (Having a mission statement and district goals) gives an absolute direction we can work toward. I say without a map, anywhere you go will do. That means there’s a weaker delivery process which directly impacts … the classroom.”
Another violation Sargent hopes to fix soon deals with MDE data reporting through the Mississippi Student Information System. MSIS was created to comply with the Performance Based Accreditation Model established by the Education Reform Act of 1982. The system provides an outlet to report comprehensive information about teachers, administrators, students and school board members.
“Of course it’s going to take major time to increase these schools’ performances, but when you talk about reporting accurate information (to MDE), that’s just negligence,” she said. “Too many people were handling it (on the district’s end). When you’re entering data, it has to be standardized.
“You can’t just see the problem and leave it there,” Sargent added referring to the previous administration and its prolonged problems. “I’ve never been a proponent of firing my way to success. I want to train and work with people, but I have high expectations.”
The district will also adhere strictly to all open meetings policies in the future, Sargent said. MDE’s investigation suggested the previous board went into executive sessions at times for issues that should have been openly discussed, she said, and sometimes executive session discussion diverted from the topic the board went behind closed doors in the first case.
“No minutes show any dissenting votes. I’m sure there may have been some … but the documents didn’t show that as well,” she said.
Board policies in general are shaping up to be a long-term project requiring time and patience.
“Right now, it’s about fixing. We’re going backward and forward at the same time. I’m being as honest as I can. I’ve had to go through and find and highlight everything (MDE) said the board had not been doing,” Sargent said. “The truth is a district can’t function without updated board policies. We’re trying to get those done as we go forward.
While district policies can be amended and updated simply with district action, raising overall classroom performance will take a commitment from the entire community, not just parents, she said.
“The community has to look where we want to take our children instead of examining are we satisfied today. In many areas, the adults get caught up in today,” Sargent said. “I know Oktibbeha County has a chance, but we have to count on everyone and count on pulling them in. Before I got here, one of my first calls was from the dean of education at Mississippi State University. I know people are willing to help here.”
“We will have to work diligently to engage parents. I think schools need to make themselves a little more flexible with their time and be willing to listen,” she added. “I’ve found since I’ve been here I’ve had a good number of parents to come see me. They care about their children — there’s no question about that. We have a role to play in making sure we’re available to all.”
Educational delivery also must be examined, she said, especially in high school settings. The district’s two high schools received an F letter grade from MDE in September, while East and West Oktibbeha County elementary schools fared better — a C and B letter grade, respectively.
WOCES was named a high-performing school by the state, and EOCES received a successful designation. WOCHS scored 101 on its Quality Distribution Index, but EOCHS failed to break the century mark, earning a 94.
“Secondary teachers have a problem (adapting to different students’ needs) everywhere. They just want to teach that subject,” Sargent said. “You do teach a subject, but you’re still teaching children. I see you as an expert in your field, and you need to have alternative approaches if a child does not get it in the classroom.
“A district’s function isn’t to fail students but to make them get it,” she added. “If educators exemplified that more, parents will catch on to that and support them. Everyone wants these children to succeed.”
Although the interim conservator is only scheduled to work with the school district through December, her time here is crucial because laying the proper foundation, she says, builds an opportunity for success in the future. Having strong leaders in the future, Sargent says, will ensure the district continues on the right path for redemption.
“Throughout the state, leadership is key. It puts a tremendous burden on voters where superintendents and boards are elected. There has to be a desire throughout the structure that removes any personal motive and looks at education for the sake of the community and children, and the sake of tomorrow,” she said. “I care about our children and I care about our state. We have so many bright people in our state; it’s inexcusable to let anything stand in our way and block our future. We have to learn from our past and move forward. I want to do well by the district because it’s not for me, it’s for the children. My personal satisfaction comes from how I work with students and how successful they are.”