December 9, 2017 10:01:19 PM
As the Columbus Municipal School District wrangles with how to improve its ailing school accountability rating, it may be able to take lessons from other districts throughout the state.
CMSD has maintained a D rating since 2012, the first year the Mississippi Department of Education began using letter grades for its school accountability ratings. While changing tests and score thresholds can make it tricky to compare one year against another, the district's prolonged struggles have been a source of angst for the community.
The period has also been marked by consistent overturn at the superintendent position. Former superintendent Del Phillips resigned in April 2011. He was succeeded by Martha Liddell in June 2012. Liddell was fired a year later, and Philip Hickman took the helm in July 2014 after Edna McGill served as interim superintendent.
Now Hickman, whose tenure has been plagued with multiple scandals and few bright spots, is on the way out in June, as the CMSD board of trustees opted against renewing his contract last month.
As CMSD moves into yet another time of transition, it may look to other success stories to help craft one of its own.
Clinton sees sustained success
Clinton Public School District, which received an A rating from MDE in 2017, is consistently one of the highest-performing districts in the state.
Anthony Goins, assistant superintendent, said a few factors have helped his district achieve and maintain success.
The most important, he said, is community involvement.
"It's vital," he said. "I can't speak for Columbus, but I do know our parents in Clinton, and our entire community, are so supportive of what we do from an educational standpoint. It's vital for any school district to be successful."
Clinton's school district is also the highest-performing majority-black school district -- it was the only A-rated majority-black district in 2017. The district's demographics have held relatively steady since the 2012-13 school year, with the black student population fluctuating between 51 and 54 percent. The white student population has dipped slightly, from 41 percent to about 38 percent, according to demographic statistics from MDE.
Clinton is also a growing school district, with student population jumping from about 4,600 students in 2011-12 to roughly 5,200 for 2017-18.
CMSD, on the other hand, is losing students, falling from about 4,600 in 2011-12 to 3,800 in 2017-18, according to MDE.
Goins said CPS, as a diverse school district, makes sure to treat all of its students the same way.
"We have the same expectations for all kids," Goins said, "regardless of how they are or where they come from. We try to treat every child as a child."
In that regard, he said, it helps that CPS students all go through the same schools.
"We have one high school," he said. "We have one junior high school. Our kids, once they start together in kindergarten, they graduate together. We don't have neighborhood schools."
CPS has one kindergarten to first grade school; a second and third grade campus; a fourth and fifth grade school; a sixth grade school; a seventh and eighth grade school; a ninth grade school; and a 10th through 12th grade school.
Reaching high expectations
Another thing that helps the district, Goins said, is that many of its teachers came up through Clinton Public Schools.
"One thing is we have a lot of teachers in the Clinton Public School District who were students in the district as well," Goins said. "Coming through the education system as a student, they understand what the expectation is."
Goins said districts throughout the state regularly reach out to CPS in attempts to learn from it. He said the district is happy to share, but noted what works in one place may not work in another.
Still, he said Clinton has a culture and an expectation of excellence. He said he couldn't speak to Columbus' issue, but culture is important.
"I can speak on Clinton," he said. "I know the expectation is to be one of the best school districts in Mississippi each and every year."
The Dispatch attempted to reach the Meridian Public School District, Vicksburg-Warren School District and Hattiesburg Public School District. Those districts are more demographically similar to CMSD and face similar challenges, including declining enrollment and sub-par accountability ratings. However, the districts either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
Tupelo returns to excellence
It wasn't long ago Tupelo Public School District was in troubled waters. MDE's accountability reports for 2010 and 2011 note the district, and several of its schools, as being on academic watch -- the equivalent of a D rating.
Since then TPSD, which now boasts a B rating, has improved. Superintendent Gearl Loden said TPSD had to focus on a few things to make it happen.
"The transformation was very simple," he said. "We did it by focusing on a few things that had a high impact. We focused on academics, to have an individualized plan for every child."
Tupelo is a district of extremes, Loden said. It has many students of students from affluent backgrounds, and many students who come from poverty, without much in the middle.
Tupelo, like Clinton and Columbus, is a majority black district and has been since the 2012-13 school year, when it rose from a plurality, at 49 percent. This year, 51.46 percent of the district's nearly 7,100 students are African-American, according to MDE.
Loden said the key to the district's success is making sure all students, regardless of their background, receives the care they need. For the students who perform above grade level, that means keeping them above grade level. For the students who lag behind, TPSD uses interventionists to try to catch them up to the appropriate level.
Assistant Superintendent Kim Britton said the district's laser focus on curriculum has shown improvements in other ways. For example, major discipline referrals have dropped from more than 1,000 six years ago to 192 this year.
"We've seen a lot of improvement, just through focusing on instruction," she said. "Get engaged. If you're students are engaged, they're less likely to get in trouble."
Britton said Tupelo has always enjoyed strong community support, even as the district navigated rocky waters to return to its historical high-performing standard. With the support in place, she said, the district focused on raising its in-classroom expectations.
"When we wanted to improve, we had to focus on our teachers and principals and developing them professionally," she said. "We set forth expectations and our teachers and students met them."
Ready to lead at a struggling district
In Starkville, Assistant Superintendent Toriano Holloway is preparing to move from a generally-successful district to one that's struggling. Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District has held a C rating for the last few years. Holloway is preparing to take the superintendent's job in the Quitman School District, which has a D rating.
Holloway said he plans to improve Quitman by taking lessons he's learned in the other districts he's worked. He, like Goins, said community involvement has to be a key in picking up the district.
"It's critical," he said. "This (Quitman) will be my fifth school district, after Jackson County, Gulfport, Harrison County and Starkville.
"In every one I've worked in that was successful, the community supported the schools," he added. "In initiative change, with decision making -- the community supported the schools."
Quitman School District, like CMSD, is losing some students, though the bleeding isn't as severe. The district dropped from about 2,000 students in 2011-12 to about 1,860 in 2017-18.
"The quality of education, a lot of times, determines the quality of the community," Holloway said. "If you want to keep the community good, you have to have a good education system. You want to make sure you're doing everything you can as a district to offer a good, quality education so that you're not the reason people are leaving the community. If that's happening, it can be a sign that we need to reevaluate."
Holloway added there's an extra danger for shrinking districts, in that some state funding is based on enrollment. If a district continues losing students, it can lead to a loss of funding, which can make it more difficult to turn a district around.
As Holloway prepares to head to Quitman later this month, he said he plans on using lessons learned in Starkville and his previous districts to help bring the district up to success. He said one thing he plans to focus on, and is important for all districts, is changing the culture.
"I worked in a previous district in a school that wasn't doing so well," he said. "We increased student achievement and two things were critical -- we created an environment of high expectations, and we created a positive culture. If you neglect a culture, it can become toxic, and it impacts everything you do."
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