MERIT program survives as elective course

March 9, 2013 8:17:24 PM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


The highly contentious gifted program within the Lowndes County School District was saved Friday, thanks in part to the outcry from students' parents.  


A standing-room-only crowd packed into the Lowndes County School Board meeting Friday morning, anxiously waiting to hear the school board's decision on whether or not to cut the gifted program, commonly referred to as MERIT, for seventh and eighth-graders within the district.  


District officials said they had been considering the decision to eliminate the MERIT program and replace it with a pre-Advanced Placement program for the past three years.  


Parents and students did not learn of those plans until three weeks ago. Since then, they have been outspoken in their opposition to the change.  


At a meeting Monday night at New Hope Middle School, principal Sam Allison told parents he recommended cutting the program because students who were in the MERIT program were not testing as high as he felt they should for their intellectual level. During the two-hour meeting, parents pleaded with Allison, district superintendent Lynn Wright and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robin Ballard to reconsider and keep the MERIT program.  


When questioned repeatedly by parents, Wright informed them that he would support the recommendation of his administration and MERIT would no longer be offered past the sixth grade. The state of Mississippi mandates that gifted programs be offered to grades second through sixth.  


During Friday's board meeting, Ballard addressed the board with a radical change from Monday night's meeting. After a brief presentation, Ballard informed the board that MERIT would continue to be offered to seventh and eighth-graders but as an elective. On Page 13 of the student handbook, it states that the gifted program is to be offered as an elective. Currently, MERIT is not considered an elective that is comparable to other electives such as art.  


"They get a reading credit but do not get that explicit reading instruction," Ballard explained.  


In years past, MERIT students entering seventh grade had an option of entering reading or continuing to take MERIT. As part of the MERIT program, the seventh-graders were taught reading, but not to the extent of students not in the MERIT program. In the Lowndes County School District, language arts is broken down into two classes. One deals specifically with reading while the other deals with grammar and language. MERIT students do not currently take a reading class.  


Ballard's proposal to revert back to the way MERIT is outlined in the student handbook would change that. As an elective, MERIT would not be held to the same level of accountability as classes such as language arts, science and math. The only guideline that would be in place is that MERIT students receive a total of five hours of the class each week.  


Ballard said that by placing the MERIT students back into both language arts classes, their scores on the MCT would improve. 


Lowndes County School District will continue to offer pre-AP classes to middle school students. Of the 206 seventh and eighth-graders at Caledonia, New Hope and West Lowndes, 162 students are taking pre-AP classes.  


Since keeping MERIT as an elective as it is outlined in the handbook was not a policy change, it did not require a vote from the board.  


MERIT parent Scott Mills presented a brief video from current MERIT students asking board members not to cut the program. Mills gave an impassioned speech about the benefits of MERIT and reiterated the point that has been made consistently by parents: MERIT encourages children to think outside of the box.  


Mills acknowledged that MERIT was not a reading class and said that he and the other parents also wanted to make sure their students performed well academically.  


"We want to see more academic achievement just like anyone else," Mills said.  


However, Mills argued that for students who are already scoring high on tests, it is hard to improve beyond a certain percentage.  


"It is more difficult to achieve and show growth if you're in the 80th, 90th percentile," he said.  


Mills also referenced that of the 196 children in MERIT at New Hope Middle, 76 parents showed up to Monday night's meeting in protest, calling it a "huge eruption of public interest." Mills encouraged the board to engage with parents before making any future decisions that could have a major impact on the students, noting as an example that the issue of school uniforms was on the board's agenda, even though he and the other parents had not been made aware of the issue.  


The issue of school uniforms has been raised countless times in the district throughout the years, with the board voting against them every year.  


During Friday's meeting, a motion was made and seconded to have school uniforms for the 2013-2014 school year.  


Board member Jane Kilgore said she was not comfortable voting on an issue until she had a firm grasp of what parents in the district wanted.  


Wright and board attorney Jeff Smith informed Kilgore that in 2012, the board sent out a letter and called parents to get their opinions on the matter. Thirty percent of parents who responded were opposed, with 20 percent supporting the idea. Half of the parents did not respond at all. 


Wright said he supports the idea of school uniforms.  


"For security reasons, it is an issue that can make a difference. It's something I would highly recommend," he said.  


Kilgore said she would like to attempt to survey the parents one more time. The motion was tabled and will be discussed at the next board meeting.  


In other news, Caledonia Elementary Principal Roger Hill was named Administrator of the year for Lowndes County. Hill has won the award eight times.  


"I love what I do and I do what I love," Hill said. "It's not a job, it's a joy."  


Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.