November 10, 2012 10:01:55 PM
The Mississippi Department of Education is casting a hard look at West Lowndes High School, and what they have uncovered so far is -- for the most part -- a troubling institutional culture of low expectations, one-size-fits-all teaching, poor academic performance and an overall lack of leadership.
Those were the findings presented to the Lowndes County Board of Education Friday following a "three-day snapshot" compiled by Lillia Jones, from the state department of education's Office of School Improvement and MDE contract consultants Dr. Velma Jenkins, Dr. Clyde Lindley and Deborah Duran.
Jenkins, a retired educator and current mayor of Shuqualak, minced no words as she delivered the report, taking West Lowndes High School to task for a litany of deficiencies which have left the school at risk of failing, based upon school accountability standards.
"We admit that you can't see everything, but we saw plenty," Jenkins said.
Lack of leadership
The school's leadership has been in a state of flux since the July retirement of former principal Cliff Reynolds. Last month, former WHS assistant principal Charles Jackson was appointed interim principal after serving as acting principal since Reynolds' departure.
The position has been a point of contention between board members, and Jenkins urged them to assign a permanent principal to the school.
She said though the students, teachers and administrators work well together and seem comfortable with one another, there is no evidence of "functional" leadership.
She criticized the current administration for failing to prioritize daily activities and spend time in the classrooms, observing.
"Regardless of anything else that occurs in a school, we are measured by how well students perform," she said. "Everything else is secondary."
It's important for principals to monitor teacher effectiveness, and it's equally important for teachers to monitor student progress, Jenkins said. Teachers can then use the data to drive instructional decisions and implement a regimented, tiered, individualistic approach to early intervention.
But though the consulting team was told the school had an intervention process, there was no evidence of one in place.
"We didn't see it, and we have to see it," Jenkins said. "You can't talk the game with us. We have to see it."
She was equally critical of the instruction, saying it lacked rigor and did not encourage higher-order, critical thinking skills. The lessons lacked interest and relevancy and were predominantly teacher-centered, with no accommodations for individual differences in learners, she said.
"Everyone is not taught the same way -- just 'straight from the hip' or straight from the middle of the road or from the textbook," Jenkins said. "Whatever challenges 'Johnny' has should be addressed based upon Johnny's performance."
Although the school's curriculum is aligned with state standards, students are weak in reading and English skills, and the consulting team advocates hiring a 10th grade teacher solely devoted to teaching reading.
But administrators have low expectations, she said, and that needs to change.
"We heard a lot about what our students can't do and this kind of thing, and we disagree," Jenkins said. "We think all students can learn, provided their needs are addressed."
But those with special needs are slipping through the cracks as well, according to the team's findings.
In mixed mainstream and special education classrooms, there is no coordination or co-teaching between the mainstream and special education instructors. They share lesson plans, but that isn't the level of collaboration the state wants to see, Jenkins said.
Furthermore, there is some latitude in special education students' individualized education programs, and teachers can place special needs students in a separate environment for test-taking if it helps them perform better, Jenkins said, but there has been nothing to accommodate those students.
"What's on this paper is not new to the administration, and much of what we have shared with them could not be written here," Jenkins said, forcefully. "So we were disappointed about that, and we don't like to be disappointed."
She said though she is passionate about children and wants to see progress, she has little patience for talk without action.
"I don't want anybody to tell me what they are 'going to do,'" she said. "At this stage, we're getting ready to finish the semester, and we're still being told what (you're) 'going to do.' That shouldn't happen."
The school provides a safe environment, with well-maintained buildings and grounds, established routines and a well-behaved and orderly student body, but there are some concerns in that area as well, Jenkins said.
The outside perimeter of the campus is not secure, and though there are surveillance cameras in place, they do not appear to be working.
And though the district has a well-written crisis management plan, the staff isn't familiar with it, Jenkins said.
In a hypothetical example, the team asked teachers what they would do to keep students safe if there was a chemical spill in the area. Only one teacher could cite the district's safety procedures.
Now that West Lowndes High School has been placed under a school improvement plan, the consulting team will make periodic visits to observe and offer assistance.
If the school continues to perform poorly on state accountability tests, MDE can fire the administrators and staff.
But Jenkins said the consulting team has a history of success in turning schools around, and she believes that after this week's meetings, everyone is on the same page in terms of what is expected and how it can be achieved.
MDE has hired the consultants to help, not point fingers, Jones said. The teachers and administrators want to do better, and by working together, she believes they can achieve their common goals.
"We don't want to be here next year, not because we don't like you but because we want to get you on the right track," Jones said. "We want to set the foundation and move on to the next district that needs us."
Jackson presented an action plan which was reviewed by the consulting team and district administrators and approved by the board Friday. He said he knew the school had issues, some which have carried over from previous administrations, but they are now being addressed.
The primary goal is raising student test scores, he told the board. A universal screening test was administered at the beginning of the year to identify students' weaknesses, and through tutoring and intervention measures, more than 35 percent of students now show improvement, he said.
Teachers are being coached on instruction strategies and a new computer system is in place to process student data.
"We're making progress," Jackson said. "It's not as fast as we would like it to be, but at least it's steady. Rome wasn't built in a day and we're not going to correct all these problems in a day, but we're going to make an effort every day, and that's what we're trying to do now."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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