November 17, 2012 11:01:05 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The criticism was swift and biting -- so much so that several attendees of the Lowndes County School Board meeting last week said they inwardly cringed as consultants ripped West Lowndes High School to shreds.
Yes, there are problems, district officials and school administrators admit. The school has languished on academic watch since the Mississippi Department of Education implemented its seven-tiered accountability system in 2008, and this year, under a new "report card" system, the school received an "F."
But they weren't the only school to fail under the new system. Columbus High School, West Point High School and East and West Oktibbeha County high schools all received "F's."
It's a moot point for a staff and student body still reeling from the public review -- billed as a "three-day snapshot" -- by MDE-hired independent consultant Dr. Velma Jenkins and Lillia Jones, from MDE's Office of School Improvement.
Now, as they look to the future, they're examining what they do well, where they need to improve and how their strengths and weaknesses fit into the overall mix.
They walked into the school year knowing they had a lot of work to do. They didn't realize they would be fighting to rise with a proverbial albatross around their necks.
A blow to morale
A chief sticking point for the consultants was a lack of "functional" leadership.
The school's leadership has been in a state of flux since the July retirement of former principal Cliff Reynolds. Last month, former 18-year WLHS assistant principal Charles Jackson was appointed interim principal after serving as acting principal since Reynolds' departure.
He met his successor, new interim assistant principal Dr. Greg Stephens, on the first day of school.
His own expectations for himself are far higher than those of the consultants, he says, but he still wishes he had been given more time to prepare for the review.
Water under the bridge now.
Along with trying to turn the school around, he has a new task -- restoring teacher morale.
The consultants painted a picture of a disconnected staff that had low expectations for students and presented dull, teacher-centered monologues that failed to address students' individual learning styles.
But Jackson refutes the claims, saying his staff is dedicated to providing the best education possible for West Lowndes children.
"Our people are busting their backsides every day, trying to do everything we can," Jackson says. "We're leaving no stone unturned to try to get scores up."
Of his 25 teachers on staff, many have been at West Lowndes more than 25 years.
William Gates has taught U.S. History at WLHS for 14 years. He challenges students to give their best in his class daily, he says. But with teenagers, sometimes their "best" has to be drawn out of them, and he tries to do that.
Sweeping changes in education make it challenging, he says. It's not enough to teach anymore; teachers must be "entertainers," figuratively standing on their heads to capture teenagers' short attention spans.
"I think it's just the age we're living in," Gates says. "Everything can be instantly gratified with the click of a button, and instead of being able to do that in school, it's something (students) have to work for. Sometimes the kids get bored in school. I think we have to change that mindset."
One student at a time
Test scores reflect the growing student ennui, but even there, all is not as it seems on the surface, Jackson says.
Under the seven-tiered system, West Lowndes would have been considered low-performing this year -- a rung higher than its previous year on academic watch.
But the state "report cards" accountability system combined low-performing, at risk of failing and failing beneath one broad umbrella -- "F."
The school raised its Quality of Distribution Index from 116 in 2008-2009 to 119 the following year. On the 2011-2012 report, their QDI was 121. The lowest possible QDI is zero and the highest score is 300.
And before the consultants arrived, the school was already implementing measures intended to increase their gains. An extra 80 minutes of tutoring per week was carved out incrementally, shaving a few minutes from the lunch period, beginning school five minutes earlier, shortening school breakfast by five minutes.
And Jackson is hoping to find an additional 20 minutes per week by shortening the time between class changes. One minute taken from each change would result in an extra seven or eight minutes per day. Staff members have walked the halls, timing themselves. It's feasible, they say.
For high achievers, the extra time is used as an advisory period, where they can work on ACT preparation or other skills. Struggling students use the time to practice the four subject area tests -- Algebra I, Biology I, English II and U.S. History -- required to obtain a diploma.
There was a time when West Lowndes students excelled at history, Gates recalls. But with the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the increased rigor being incorporated into classrooms, the tests are more difficult than ever.
A particular weakness for the school's students is reading proficiency, making the test even more difficult.
But there's something else to factor when examining West Lowndes' dismal academic performance -- basic math.
While Caledonia and New Hope high schools have between 700 and 800 students, West Lowndes has 178. A handful of low performers can dramatically impact the overall QDI.
Each child's score counts roughly two to three percent at WLHS, whereas a Caledonia or New Hope student's scores count less than one percent.
To solve the school's academic woes, they will have to do it one student at a time.
"One of things we've done, and we're not there yet -- we're changing the culture, the way the teachers and kids look at tests," Gates says. "You have to work on that part of it, too. It's not all reading, writing and arithmetic. You have to work on a student's attitude, desire, heart."
Parents and school pride
Parents factor into the success equation as well. And though there is some parental involvement, it's nowhere near what it needs to be, Jackson says.
A few weeks ago, school officials held a parent-teacher organization meeting. Not one parent attended. Last year, Jackson says, the PTO didn't meet at all.
Next year, he plans to require parents to accompany students picking up their class schedules. A parent coordinator works with the community to try to raise involvement.
Statistics show that involved parents result in academically successful students, Jackson says. So why are parents so uninvolved?
Part of the problem may lie in geography and socioeconomics.
Whereas Caledonia and New Hope high schools benefit from a tight community nucleus, WLHS students are drawn from the Artesia, Crawford and Plum Grove communities.
Some students live so far from the school that the bus picks them up at 5:15 a.m.
Whereas years ago, each community had its own schools, school consolidation has resulted in students and communities that have no firm sense of connection with their nearby counterparts.
"With Caledonia and New Hope, when you've got people that are that close to each other, that makes it easier," Jackson says. "They go to church together. A lot of them have been together since kindergarten."
Instead of seeing themselves as Lowndes County residents or West Lowndes High School students, they identify themselves as being from the community where they were raised.
It occasionally creates friction.
"We have the same challenges as everybody does, but the lack of a real strong community in one area, like Columbus, I think that is a problem we have to overcome," Jackson says. "You don't have that overall identity. A lot of students feel like, 'I'm from Artesia,' or 'I'm from Crawford.' I tell the students every year, 'You're from West Lowndes.'"
The road ahead
In the future, school officials will have a road map for helping students succeed. This year, they began universal screening, allowing them to compare and track individual student results -- and academic growth -- throughout the year.
Tutoring, along with an incentives system, will hopefully raise test scores. Everyone is working toward the same goal, Jackson says. Teachers are so committed to student success that they are staying after school to tutor. Jackson is paying from his school budget to allow school buses to make an additional trip in the evening for the students who stayed for extra help.
"What you've got now is a faculty committed to getting the scores up," he says. "I am real, real proud of that. (The consultants' review) is not like the kiss of death. I think Ms. Jenkins made it sound like we hadn't done anything."
Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright says the central office and community support West Lowndes' efforts to improve.
"We have some good people at West Lowndes," Wright says. "We are striving to move West Lowndes High School forward and provide the students with every opportunity."
Jackson is as concerned about his staff as he is about his students.
"I'm not going to tell you they weren't upset and hurt (by the review)," he says. "That would be a lie. Dr. Stephens and I are working hard to get the level of confidence back up."
Gates says he and his colleagues are focused on the future.
"Our faculty was a little bit disheartened by what was said, but that's their findings, and we have to deal with it," Gates says. "I love West Lowndes; I love the kids, the faculty, the staff. It is what it is and we just have to move forward."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.