By NATHAN GREGORY
Mississippi State University is using resources to assist the Oktibbeha County School District in an effort to improve student achievement and raise graduation rates at the request of OCSD and the Mississippi Department of Education, according to MSU Vice President for Research David Shaw.
Officials from MSU’s College of Education, Research and Curriculum Unit, Early Childhood Institute and other entities began a 90-day process this month of gathering information to develop a plan of action between MSU and OCSD.
Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency for the school district last September upon the recommendation from the MDE, which found the district was in violation of 29 of 30 accreditation standards. The county school board and superintendent were immediately replaced by conservator Jayne Sargent for a 90-day period before Margie Pulley was named her successor in December.
Pulley said MSU officials involved in the assessment had visited West Oktibbeha and East Oktibbeha County high schools and had observed much of their interaction with teachers and students. She said she believed their assistance had already improved student achievement.
“They have been working with teachers and working with students providing mentoring, teaching, coaching and modeling for our students and our teachers,” Pulley said. “They have been very supportive. The students are pleased and eager to have the assistance.”
Shaw said in addition to providing support this spring, MSU had committed to helping develop a long-term plan for the district. After gathering information, he said MSU would communicate the plan to district stakeholders by July 1. The plan may include a leadership role in district curriculum and instruction for the 2013-14 school year and beyond, according to Shaw.
“Our plan is to go in and do a very thorough assessment and work with (Pulley) to look at where we can provide assistance. We need to spend at least 90 days … in a listen-and-learn process, which is what we’re in the middle of right now,” Shaw said. “We certainly did not want to come in at the end of the 90-day period and say, ‘This is what we can do.’ We will evolve our strategy based on how we can best meet these needs more by listening than deciding what we can do. We have research units wanting not only to engage with teachers and students, but also to become more involved with parents and stakeholders that want to see success at Oktibbeha County Schools.”
Shaw said the two entities initially approached MSU last fall to discuss assisting them in the effort to improve the school system.
“We had several different levels of dialogue between (MDE and the school district) not only to determine what we could do but to define their expectations and needs so we were seeing things through the same lens,” he said.
OCSD’s future is in flux after a bill Miss. Rep. Toby Barker submitted last month that proposed to consolidate the district with Starkville School District. The bill passed the House Education Committee before passing through the full House Feb. 13 by a 107-6 vote. The Senate Education Committee is now reviewing the bill.
Shaw said what happened to the bill had no impact on MSU’s arrangement with MDE and OCSD.
“The university has not engaged in any conversation regarding the bill and we have no plans to get involved,” Shaw said. “I believe if consolidation happens we are laying a good foundation for it to be successful. If consolidation is not to take place, we’re still doing the exact same thing … (which is) working toward a goal of developing high performance schools in Oktibbeha County. It doesn’t matter what happens with this legislation … to be able to attain that.”
Shaw said MSU had a strong commitment to assist schools in the university’s home county.
“I would also say if (MDE) came to us with any school system that has a challenge, the university would step in and provide any support it could for any school system in the state of Mississippi and not just Oktibbeha County,” Shaw said. “We have some very strong goals to serve as a fundamental change agent in this region and also in the state.”
Shaw said pooling county, MSU and MDE resources could be instrumental in the school district’s future success.
“I think what we see is this is not a financial problem in and of itself. The school district is not under conservatorship because of a fiscal situation,” he said. “We know there are some bright children there and we have a good base to work with and a lot of resources. What we want to do is provide teachers and administration with the tools they need to be successful. I’m extraordinarily positive on the potential working together with them can have.”
Pulley said OCSD was fortunate to partner with MSU to improve graduation rates and test scores.
“They have been very gracious and cooperative. This is all about the students and all about improving student achievement,” she said. This is good for the community and good for students. I think we are heading in the right direction. We have a very good working relationship right now with MDE and Mississippi State. They have both been very supportive in our efforts.”
MSU President Mark Keenum said the university took seriously its responsibility to make a difference in education at all levels in the state.
“When we’re asked for assistance that has the potential to change lives and outcomes, and particularly when that request involves students and families in our local community, we’re proud to be able to put our shoulders to the wheel with the other stakeholders in this important effort.”
Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House said the collaboration would ensure students in the district received what they needed to improve academically.
“We will continue to seek innovative solutions and partnerships that will help all students reach their full potential,” House said. “We are pleased with the enthusiastic response from MSU to our request and look forward to working together on this endeavor.”