The Oktibbeha County School District Board of Directors received an evaluation report from the Mississippi Department of Education on both East Oktibbeha County Elementary School and East Oktibbeha County High School, which need to raise test scores this year or risk becoming charter schools.
Each school was visited in early September by a six-person observation team made up of highly experienced educational professionals contracted by MDE. The observations were simply a “snapshot,” one MDE representative said, which included classroom observations, interviews and building walk-throughs to examine factors that would impact academic performance.
The report lists each school’s strengths and challenges, along with findings and recommendations on leadership, curriculum and assessment, delivery of instruction and school climate and safety.
The report showed EOCES’s strengths — “resources effectively managed by administration,” “supportive and focused leadership team,” “ample opportunities for cooperative and collaborative planning among teachers,” and “safe and inviting learning environment” — focused mainly on strong administration and teaching staff.
The school’s weaknesses — “professional development not focused on instructional deficiencies,” “data analysis did not result in significant revisions to curriculum and instruction,” “assessments lacked variety and did not reflect the designated level of difficulty,” and “classroom instruction not meaningful, relevant, engaging, or rigorous” — however, pointed to changes needed in the classroom.
Overall, the report’s recommendations included implementing a professional development plan, revising instruction based on an analysis of student assessment data, increasing the rigor of classroom instruction and continuing to explore and develop strategies to encourage parental support and involvement.
Principal Yolanda Magee addressed the board on what the school was doing to address the issues and, in turn, improve test scores. She said the leadership team is consistently providing feedback to teachers and professional development has become a priority.
“We were told we’re on the right track. We’re working very hard with the team to move in the right direction,” she said.
Since the evaluation, the school has seen an increase in attendance, added extracurricular activities and focused on positive reinforcement with students.
The elementary school is labeled as “low performing” with a Quality Distribution Index score of 101. Magee said she has set a goal of raising the QDI score to 165.
The MDE report showed EOCHS’s strengths — “cohesiveness among teachers and staff to maintain discipline in the school,” “clearly established procedures for building visitors, buses, and other traffic,” and “safe and orderly school environment” — focused on the way the school is operated. However, like EOCES, the school’s weaknesses — “high expectations and instructional focus for all students notably absent,” “test data not utilized to plan, monitor, or revise curriculum and assessments,” “student mastery of objectives not monitored or used to determine promotion,” “classroom instruction lacked rigor and did not promote high order thinking,” and “lessons not meaningful, relevant, engaging or rigorous” — showed deficiencies within the classroom.
The recommendations were very similar to those of the elementary school, with a focus on professional development, demonstrating instructional leadership by focusing on the academic success of all students and using data to determine instructional weaknesses.
Principal Helen Kennard said her team is determined to make the improvements, both short and long term, by focusing on rigorous instruction and implementing instruction strategies for at-risk students.
The high school is labeled as “failing” with a QDI of 96. Kennard said she has set a goal of a QDI score of 150.
“We need just four points, but we’re pushing for more than those four points,” she said. “They say if you shoot for the moon; if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
The schools are receiving help from the very same team that made the initial evaluations to help implement the recommendations. Team leader Harry Dieckmann said they have made it clear to both the administration and the teachers that they are there to help.
“Sometimes we have great success and sometimes we’ve seen teachers make great turnarounds and start teaching with great enthusiasm all of the sudden. We see some bright spots,” he said.
Both schools received criticism on a lack of data-driven instruction, but the district has implemented the East Test Tracker system, which should address that problem. The system allows teachers to receive instant data on both individual students and the class as whole to track their progress and adjust instruction accordingly.
“It makes it all the more important for you, as a board, to ask to see those numbers on at least a bimonthly basis because the high school has to move at least to the ‘at risk of failing’ — they have to get out of the ‘failing’ box to not apply. Both schools have to get to at least ‘academic watch,’ which for the elementary level is just one level up, for the high school it’s two levels up, for the charter conversion piece to not apply,” Laura Jones, an MDE representative, said. “The charter conversion piece said that any school in any of those bottom three categories for three consecutive years, then the community can petition the state board to convert that school into a charter school.”
Jones said it was unclear if the policy would hold up during the new legislative session, but the schools should continue to strive to improve.
“The high school staff has assured me that they’re going to make unbelievable progress and we’re not going to have worry about any of that. I’m sure the elementary school would say the same thing,” she said. “Hopefully, we won’t have to worry about it, but we’ve got to make sure we’re making progress to be 100 percent sure.”