Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on two Oktibbeha County schools and their individual performance.
By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
This year, four points will be the difference between failure and growth for East Oktibbeha County High School.
The school struggled for several years to improve state standardized test scores and now the Mississippi Department of Education said it must show growth this year or face the consequences.
In September, a six-person technical assistance team made up of retired school administrators visited the schools for one day and conducted classroom observations, interviews and a building walk-through. The team compiled a report which listed the school’s strengths and challenges along with findings and recommendations on leadership, curriculum and assessment, delivery of instruction and school climate and safety. That report was given to the Oktibbeha County School District Board of Trustees last week.
The report listed EOCHS’s strengths as “cohesiveness among teachers and staff to maintain discipline in the schools,” “clearly established procedures for building visitors, buses and other traffic” and “safe and orderly school environment.” The challenges, however, were listed as “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 higher order thinking” and “lessons not meaningful, relevant, engaging, or rigorous.”
The evaluation report is just the beginning of a new program MDE is sponsoring to help get struggling schools back on track.
“We’ve been in Oktibbeha County for several years and up until last year, it was very individualized. The old process, we did an individual evaluation of every one of the school’s staff — principals, staff, each individual teacher, superintendent, the board; it was huge. It would take an exorbitant amount of time, amount of money and so by the time we’ve done the assessment and it’s time to help you, we were out of money and time,” Laura Jones, Mississippi Department of Education bureau manager of school improvement, said. “We’ve changed this process to a very ‘snapshot-y’ kind of needs assessment. Then what the team does is spend the majority of their contractual days back in the building helping to fix those issues that they found during the needs assessment. They help make sure the school stays on a positive track and that they don’t just do right while we’re there and then slip back into old tendencies when we’re gone. We’re with them the whole year.”
The very same team that conducted the evaluation is now working with EOCHS to make improvements, which Kennard said is making a difference in the classroom.
“They’re taking a critical but non-threatening look at the teaching process — the way that teachers teach, the instructional process, what they are doing. Other times when MDE has come into the building with school improvement, it has been, ‘Let me dissect you and find everything that’s not right, and that’s what I’m going to write about. And once I write about it, that’s it. I’m not going to assist you,’” Kennard said. “Now they’re sitting down, looking at them as they teach and coming back in our conferences. We sit down and we talk about what it is that they’re doing well, then what it is they need to work on. Then we even talk about how they think they could have done better. Teachers are embracing that.”
With the help of the technical assistance team, the school has set a number of goals based largely on instruction. The first is that all lessons will be consistent with MDE curriculum framework and the district pacing guide.
The second is for teachers to facilitate rigorous instruction that engages students at least 60 percent of the time. To ensure the goal is met, teachers must participate in 10 days of job-embedded professional development throughout the year. Kennard will make classroom observations and provide feedback.
“We’re looking at some strategies to help out — breaking down the Depth of Knowledge levels, making sure we are teaching with rigor, making sure that we are engaging students in the learning process so that they are actively involved in the learning process,” Kennard said “We’re going away from the teacher-centered instruction where the teacher is lecturing, lecturing, lecturing, to where students are taking part in their learning.”
The third goal encourages all teachers to implement differentiated instructional strategies for at-risk students identified by assessment data by the end of the year.
The final goal is for teachers to develop rigorous assessments that mirror the MCT2 and SATP standardized test sample assessments.
MDE has been working with the Oktibbeha County schools for several years, and Jones said she did not have high expectations for EOCHS last year. The school’s Quality Distribution Index score, which is based on state standardized test scores, was 95 in 2010 and despite MDE’s evaluation, the score only increased by one point last year.
“At the high school, when they did not make progress, that was not a surprise at all. I didn’t think that they would,” she said. “We weren’t seeing from the teachers last year and the administration the kind of dedication that we’re seeing this year. It’s almost like we’re in a completely different place — with most of them. We’re not 100 percent at the high school, but we’re a heck of a lot closer than we were this time last year.”
Kennard took over as principal this school year, and Jones said she likes what she sees so far.
“I would be shocked if we did not see progress this spring at the high school. I told them when I met with the staff Monday afternoon before the board meeting, I said, ‘You know, you only have to move four QDI points to get out of this failing box. But last year, you only had to move five points to get out of the failing box and you only moved one. It sounds like it’s easy, and it should be, but obviously last year either it wasn’t easy or y’all didn’t try.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s choice B,’” Jones said. “But it was like I was talking to a completely different staff. And there are a good many of them that are new. 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. If the principal has high expectations for the teachers then generally the teachers will turn around and have high expectations for the students.”
Kennard said she saw a major shift in the attitude at the school over the last few months.
“There has been a paradigm shift. I can’t take the credit for that because that has to come from within,” she said. “I know that one of my strengths is that I do try to motivate people. I try to get them to see that we can do better, we can be better and try to get them to do the best that they can. I believe in shared leadership. If you get people to buy into your vision, then you can get them to move forward. These teachers have the content knowledge, but I think what was lacking was bonding, feeling like we’re all in this together. You’ve got to get everybody to buy in, including the students (and) parents.”
The school will be saved with just a four-point improvement, but Kennard has set a goal of a QDI score of 150.
“Because of what I’ve seen taking place over the last few months, I feel very confident that we will move forward to another level. I believe we’re going to make gains,” she said.
For the last two years, EOCHS has ranked as a failing school. According to the New Start School Program and Conversion Charter School Act of 2010, if the school does not raise their QDI score by at least four points from 96 to 100 EOCHS will be taken over by the state.
“It’s very serious with the high school. With the New Start School Program, if it stays intact and in place, and if the high school does not make the four points to move out of the failing box, then everybody in the school is fired. I mean everybody — custodial staff, cafeteria staff, teachers — is fired,” Jones said. “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.”
Jones said MDE sees flaws in the law and hopes to have it altered or removed from the books. Test results are not released until September, which means if EOCHS does not improve their scores, their entire staff will be fired after the year has already started.
“It wasn’t well thought out timing-wise when they put it together. We’re working on trying to get it changed,” she said. “I’m not saying that we don’t need to do something about schools that continue to fail their students because something needs to be done. But it’s what’s on the books, and unless we’re successful in convincing the legislators that it’s not the answer, it will hold true.”
Kennard said the threat of losing the school could have gone one of two ways: teachers could have given up and decided to go elsewhere, or they could come together and work hard to prevent those measures from happening. Thankfully, she said, the teachers have gone the latter.
“You want everybody to feel like they’re in a safe place. Regardless of what happens, you’re going to be okay. But when the news comes down like that, it was a sense of, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’ And I had to reassure them that given the strategies we have in place now — with the most foundational piece being that we’re ensuring that we are teaching and using the best practices from bell to bell — will ensure our students have what they need to be successful on the state tests,” she said.