Lowndes schools prep for big changes

August 1, 2013 10:49:27 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


When students and teachers begin the 2013 school year Wednesday, they will encounter several changes in the Lowndes County School District. 


Block scheduling, one of the biggest changes that will be implemented in the district, will begin this term. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robin Ballard said with Common Core fast approaching, block scheduling will offer students and teachers more concentrated time in the classroom. Offered in the high school, students will have four main courses to focus on, Ballard said. 


"You can do a seven-period traditional schedule or you can do a block schedule," she said. "They have four main core subjects a semester and a semester equals a year. So they're able to really earn more credits and we're able to offer more electives which appeals to a lot of the students." 


Ballard added that by offering more electives, the district hopes to capture students' attention and decrease the dropout rate. 


"We hope that it is going to decrease our dropout rate because there are more course offerings that will appeal to them," she said. 


ACT prep, photography, journalism, drama, theatre, humanities, painting, desktop publishing, minority studies, problems of American Democracy, history of Ancient Middle East and computation in business will be offered as electives. 


Ballard said the district made the decision to offer block scheduling in an effort to prepare students for Common Core, which will go into effect in Mississippi in the 2014-2015 school year. 


"The rule of thumb with Common Core is however much reading you do is how much writing you do, and so for the teachers to really give good feedback on writing -- as much writing is going be required for Common Core -- they really need more time in the classroom to have a complete cycle of instruction, to have that introduction and to have that hook and then to have closure at the end which is not, 'OK, get your book bags' and the bell ringing and they rush out. It's to give those teachers more time to do authentic instruction for Common Core to get to the deeper level that Common Core is requiring." 


While the students may have been on summer break for the past two months, Ballard said school officials have been busy working to ensure both students and teachers have a smooth transition back into the classroom. 




Getting ready for Gateway 


In addition to preparing for Common Core, Ballard said one of the issues the district has been working on is the Literacy Promotion Act. Recently approved by the Mississippi Legislature, the Literacy Promotion Act, commonly referred to as the "Third Grade Gateway," dictates that if children are not reading on their proper reading level by third grade, they will be held behind. 


"It does not go into effect this coming school year but we're pretending like it's going to," Ballard said. 


"We're going to really start monitoring our K 1 and K 2 and trying to get them up and ready for next year and grow them as much as we can so that (when) it does go into effect the next year, we'll already have those students identified." 


To make sure students are reading on their grade level, the district will implement The Sonday System, a cutting-edge reading program that Ballard said uses "jingles and is more game oriented" to help capture students' attention. 


"This was a program that we piloted last year and decided to purchase it," Ballard said. The Sonday System kit costs the district $795 per kit. Ballard said three kits will be available at each campus. 


The district will have five Response to Intervention (RTI) Specialists and six intervention assistants to help facilitate the program. The specialists and intervention assistants will work with students who may be struggling to read on their current grade level. 


"We're hoping that's going to help us identify as many students as we can on the front end to get them ready before that gateway kicks in," Ballard said. 


Ballard said teachers will have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the Sonday System and other professional development courses during the course of the school year through Professional Learning Communities, a program that was implemented five years. 


"We're still able to do our early release Wednesdays and still get our 27 1/2 hours of instruction time during the week so we're able to get out of school Wednesday at 1:15 for the students and that's when our teachers have PLC's," she said. 


"We've changed it up just a little bit so this year, every Wednesday they're going to be doing some type of PLC ." 


"They have embedded professional development. It's not at the beginning of the year. It's not at the end of the year. It's embedded so they're able to get strategies, they team plan together, they share material and ideas together, brain storm and trouble-shoot on the front end so they can actually work it into their classroom. Then they come back as a collective group and do it again." 


Instead of traveling out of town for professional development, Ballard said Lowndes County school teachers have the majority of their training within the district. 


"Our district PLCs have been well received by the teachers. At first they didn't really want to travel across the district because we cover a lot of miles but after they've gotten into it, they really liked it. They've gotten to know other great teacher experts in their grade levels across the district and it's been very good."

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