The state’s takeover of the Oktibbeha County School District took Gale Shumaker by surprise.
The bad news began in September when the Mississippi Department of Education released results for the Mississippi Curriculum Test version 2 (MCT2) and other state rubrics. Many eyes were on the MCT2, as East Oktibbeha County High School failed to raise its Quality Distribution Index (QDI) by the four points needed to avoid becoming a state-controlled New Start School.
Then MDE announced it had evaluated the OCSD as a whole on 30 accreditation standards, and it had failed 29 of them. The state ended up not just taking over EOCHS, but the district as a whole.
“I’ll be honest with you, we weren’t aware that we were where we were,” Shumaker said. “I did not know we were at a predicament where we were going to be taken over. I thought we were okay. It was a surprise for all of us.”
The Oktibbeha County School District made serious efforts to improve in 2012 only to fall short, facing a state takeover aimed at dramatic changes, the full extent of which remains to be seen.
When 2012 began, there was hope for troubled schools in the Oktibbeha County School District to improve on their own. Laura Jones, Mississippi Department of Education bureau manager of school improvement expressed optimism in January for East Oktibbeha County Elementary School, whose QDI had fallen from 114 in 2010 to 101 in 2011. She said she was also pleased with Helen Kennard’s progress as EOCHS’s principal.
“It was like I was talking to a completely different staff, and there are a good many of them that are new,” Jones said in January. “There’s a new principal, and she is far more motivating and into instruction, for lack of a better term, than the former principal was. They’ve got a strong leader now to lead them in the right direction and to expect that from that from the teachers.”
But, Kennard resigned as EOCHS principal during the summer, and so did West Oktibbeha County High School principal Leonardo Thompson. Jerome Smith also retired as OCSD assistant superintendent for curriculum after 41 years in education that summer, and former Starkville High School principal Kathi Wilson replaced him.
When preliminary MCT2 results showed inconsistencies in August, with significant growth shown in some results and significant decline shown in others, then-OCSD Superintendent James Covington said more consistent leadership in the high school principals’ offices could have helped.
“We did a good job in elementary this year,” Covington said in August.
“In elementary, we’ve had some consistency there in the office of principal. In high school, we have not had the consistency of building leadership. If we can ever establish that consistency, (the high schools) will mirror what the elementary schools are doing.”
Indeed, EOCES’s QDI rose 35 points to 136 as Jones had hoped, and West Oktibbeha County Elementary School became the highest-performing school in the county with a QDI of 176. WOCES earned several other laurels in 2012, placing seventh on a list of Exceed Schools identified by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and earning a $25,000 Project Fit America grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield. In a discussion of the Exceed Schools Award in September, WOCES principal Andrea Temple said other schools might be able to learn from WOCES’s example.
“We do not have all the answers, but we do believe that all children can learn and have the capability to obtain greatness,” Temple said in September. “Providing students with quality instruction, proper resources and support, you will observe improvements in student achievement.”
Meanwhile, EOCHS’s score fell two points to 94, WOCHS’s score fell three points to 101 and Governor Phil Bryant signed a declaration of emergency in the OCSD at MDE’s request, unseating Covington and the entire school board in September. MDE then replaced the superintendent and board with conservator Jayne Sargent, who was quick to reassure the community in October that other faculty and staff jobs were not in immediate danger.
“Every teacher is still hired, every principal is still hired, but they will be evaluated throughout the year,” Sargent said in October. “If some of them need support to get better, we’ll give it to them, but if some of them just can’t do the job, we’ll let them know.”
In fact, when Sargent’s tenure as conservator ended in December, she said she had terminated no faculty for both legal and practical reasons, wishing to avoid disrupting OCSD classes. She said she will leave those decisions to her successor as conservator, Margie Pulley, but she has made some preliminary evaluations of her own.
“For me to say all the teachers are doing an adequate job would not be fair,” Sargent said in December. “I dare say some changes may result. I’m not speaking for (Pulley), but I know if I had been the person who was going to be here until spring of this (academic) year, when we’d make those decisions, I would certainly take that into consideration.”