December 9, 2017 10:01:19 PM
In 2003, Lori Pierce and her family moved to Columbus from Savannah, Georgia. Despite warnings from some of her new neighbors, she enrolled her son in the Columbus Municipal School District. He began kindergarten at Franklin Elementary in the fall of 2004. The Pierces' two daughters followed that path upon reaching school age.
Over the ensuing decade, Columbus schools had no better advocate. Pierce seemed to be everywhere, organizing parent groups, conferring with teachers and administrators, even recruiting parents and their children to the school district. Pierce, who now teaches foreign language at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, even spent a year at CMSD as a teacher.
"I got together with a lot of the other parents and we were very happy," Pierce said. "I used to spend every summer meeting new parents who had moved in, telling them not to listen to what people were telling them, that the schools were good and you need to support them.
"When Dr. (Del) Phillips came in as superintendent, he told us, 'You're not going to have to do that anymore. We're going to build a school system where they come to us.' That's what happened," she added. "By the time he left, I had parents whose children were in private schools calling me about moving their children in."
Now, 10 years and three superintendents later, Pierce has gone from cheerleader to critic, a journey that moved from enthusiasm to disappointment to frustration to disillusionment and finally, departure.
In 2014, after a failed effort to attain a seat on the CMSD Board of Trustees in what she believed was her last chance to help arrest the decline of the school system, Pierce removed her children from the district.
"It broke my heart," Pierce said.
Starting over ... again
In 2003, the year the Pierces moved to Columbus, Lester Beason was the superintendent of a school district that was home to 4,975 students. Over the next 15 years, student population has decreased by more than 23 percent to 3,826 students. Over 60 percent of that loss, 690 students, has come in the last four years.
Meanwhile, the district has scored a D or its equivalent in each of the last nine years in the state's accountability ratings.
Monday evening, the CMSD Board of Trustees will meet to hear proposals from firms who will be charged with a search for the district's fifth superintendent since 2011 after the board chose not to renew the contract of superintendent Philip Hickman during its Nov. 13 meeting. Hickman's four-year contract expires at the end of June.
The perceived decline of the district appears to be accelerating as the board seeks new leadership and a fresh start in reversing that trend, building open communication within the district and re-engaging with the broader Columbus community.
'It was like we were supposed to be robots'
Johnny Coleman spent 27 years as a teacher and coach in the district, retiring in 2007. Over that span, he noticed a slow change in how the schools function, a gradual deterioration that escalated during his final years of teaching.
"When I first got here, there was the most fantastic staff of teachers," Coleman said. "They were so knowledgeable and they had been here forever. Being a principal was easy because the teachers ran the school. They took care of things."
Debbie McLauren, who spent 24 years in the district as a kindergarten teacher, said her early years in the district mirrored those of Coleman.
"When I started there, as a teacher you knew what the standards were and just taught. (The administration) expected you to know what to do. Really, they just let you teach. By the time I left (in 2014), there had been such a change. It seems like we got into test mode and everything revolved around the test."
It is a change CMSD board president Jason Spears acknowledges.
"I'm not an expert, but from my understanding, the traditional type of teaching has changed," he said. "The landscape has shifted a bit because of the way testing has been pushed and the changes in standards."
That shift doesn't account for all of the changes McLauren has seen in her role as a teacher, however. McLauren has been teaching first grade at Sudduth Elementary School in Starkville since her departure three years ago from CMSD.
"The testing focus is at every school," McLauren said. "But the things that were happening in my last years in Columbus, especially my last year, weren't about testing."
McLauren said the biggest change came with the arrival of Hickman as superintendent in 2014.
"It was like we were supposed to be robots," McLauren said. "(The students) had to answer in unison and everybody would repeat it again, no matter where they were in understanding the material. You could see the children getting frustrated. They were ready to move forward, but we weren't allowed to do that. It went against every bone in my body. I thought, 'I can't keep doing to the children what you're asking me to do. I have more to offer than that.'
"I finally looked up the program we were using," she added. "It was an old remedial program called Vistar, one used for the students that were the lowest of the low. That was what we were using for our whole class. We had no say. I was crushed."
That lack of autonomy in the classroom was duplicated in teachers' roles in making decisions that affected their students, McLauren said.
"The one year I was there after the new superintendent came in, we had ordered textbooks for that year," McLauren recalled. "(The teachers) had met for weeks and weeks in meetings at the central office for textbook selection meetings, listening to different companies and deciding on which books met our needs.
"(Hickman) just came in and said we're not going to use those books, that we would sell them on eBay," she said. "Right then, I think we all saw there was just no way around it. The school had gone down so low. ...Our hearts just weren't there anymore. Some retired and some who weren't ready to retire moved to other districts. I don't feel like I really had any choice."
'The hardest thing I've ever had to do was to take my children out of the district'
As a parent, Pierce saw the effect of the changes, too.
"My children were frustrated," she said. "I wasn't seeing the evidence of day-to-day learning. It seemed like they were being held back rather than being challenged."
The "Ah-Ha" moment for Pierce came when her son was in middle school.
"I had worked with the principal and got a really good math teacher," Pierce said. "She had her whole curriculum together and we were so excited. That's when (Hickman) came in. He said she couldn't teach the curriculum she had put together. It was, 'Here's the book.' What I was hearing from my children and from other teachers was: 'I'm not allowed to create any lesson plans. I'm only allowed to stand and read out of the book.'"
Pierce said it was that frustration that led her to apply for an open seat on the school board in 2015.
"For all those years, I had talked myself blue in the face about how good the district was. So when I saw what was happening, I told myself I couldn't give up on this until I had done everything I knew to do. Serving on the school board seemed to be the only option left."
When the council did not appoint Pierce to the board, she felt the end had come.
"When (the council) shut that door, I had to walk," she said. "The hardest thing I've ever had to do was to take my children out of the district."
'About the only decision teachers had a say in was what day would the school year begin'
Students aren't the only ones making an exodus.
In her preparation for applying for the school board, Pierce pored over the monthly minutes of the school board meeting.
"What I saw was that the district was losing close to 30 percent of its teachers every year," she said. "There's always turnover, but not at that rate. It's about twice the rate you would expect. I knew just from that alone that there was a real morale problem in the schools."
McLauren said in her 24 years in the district she saw teacher morale go from good to miserable.
"When I started, teachers were happy and morale was good," she said. "We had round-table discussions where teachers met with administrators and talked about ideas as representatives of their schools. Administrators want to us to share our ideas and listen to their ideas. They understood that when you can get teachers behind your ideas, that's when good things happen.
"But at the end, we didn't have any real input," she added. "About the only decision teachers had a say in was what day would the school year begin -- on a Friday or the next Monday. How important is that? We felt we didn't have any input on anything meaningful."
From the school board's perspective, Spears agrees there needs to be a more open dialogue throughout all levels of the district, including allowing teachers to have a greater voice in the decision-making process, as well as improving communication at all levels -- board, administration, faculty, student and patron.
"As a board, we often don't hear directly from teachers or staff or even parents," he said. "We hear what is brought to us. But I do think (communication is) something we need to work on.
"So if teachers are saying (they) would like to have that platform to discuss things without repercussions, I believe the board will respond to that," he later added. "A lot of times, the best insight comes from the people who are doing the hands-on work. I think sometimes we're not hearing from those people directly."
'When you feel like the community is supporting you, that really helps'
In her early years in the district, McLauren felt she had the support of the community, particularly business leaders.
That, too, she said has changed.
"We used to have something called Partners in Progress," McLauren said. "Businesses adopted a school and supported the school, sometimes financially, like building a playground, but in little ways, too. Businesses would put posters in the break room and do things like providing treats for the kids, just having that connection. When you feel like the community is supporting you, that really helps.
"But by the time I left, it seemed like businesses just didn't want to have anything to do with the schools any more," she added. "That's one of the big differences I've noticed between Columbus and Starkville. (In Starkville) we have a lot of prominent people and businesses that support our schools."
Spears said the district must make the first move to start rebuilding community support.
"Speaking from the board's side, I'll say we probably haven't done as good a job in helping identify how people can get involved and the different levels of how they can get involved," he said. "If there are businesses that were involved in the past, but things have changed, we may need to find a way to re-engage. We can't just expect them to come back to us. We have to reach out."
'Education is a process'
Spears was appointed to the board in May 2012, just as the board was going through a financial crisis.
"One of my first experiences as a board member was going down to the superintendent's office as they were striking people off as part of a reduction of force because there wasn't enough money," Spears said. "So on the financial side, that has dramatically improved since then."
That has continued to strengthen and get better through some of the innovative steps the board has taken, Spears said -- such as refinancing debt and marketing unused properties like the former Lee Middle School.
"On the education side of things, there have been some roadblock(s) through MDE and cutting funding, which starts to trickle over to the financial side and can have its own negative impact," he said. "But I think the school experience had gotten better. I think we have good, quality teachers. But as far as the landscape of education, I don't know if we've seen the changes in results we hope to see over the years. That's the big challenge, because it all comes down to student achievement.
"Education is a process and if you don't have the right process, you won't see the results," he added. "But I do believe the district can be successful. I wouldn't be on the board if I didn't believe that."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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