Del Phillips: An innovative plan for educational improvement

March 11, 2009

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Some people, including a few educators, say we expect too much of our schools. We ask them to not only be teachers and role models but also parents and counselors.  

 

But others argue we don''t demand enough, that our standards aren''t high enough, that we settle for mediocrity, that we stifle creativity. At the Columbus Municipal School District, we agree and we accept the challenge; in fact, we see it as an opportunity.  

 

That''s one reason we converted our elementary schools to magnet schools last fall and will phase the concept in at the older grades during the next three years. That''s why we transformed Columbus High School into one of the few International Baccalaureate schools in the world.  

 

We''re seeing the results in improved student learning, increased parental involvement and growing community enthusiasm and support.  

 

But we aren''t done or satisfied.  

 

This week we unveiled a school calendar for grades K-6 that already is shaking the foundations of education not just in Mississippi but also in other parts of the country.  

 

We think it is both innovative and challenging. But most of all we think it is necessary if we are to meet the demands of increasingly competitive, global education and economic marketplaces.  

 

The calendar, which calls for an 11-month school year, addresses head on some fundamental facts about our schools.  

 

We shouldn''t continue relying on a school calendar developed more than 100 years ago when farming dominated our lives; we have to get to students as early as possible to have a long-term impact on learning, we must not leave struggling students behind or we run the risk of failing all students, and we can''t let talented students go unchallenged.  

 

In short, as our detractors have said, we must not be satisfied with the status quo.  

 

The concept is simple and pragmatic. School will start in early August but instead of tapering off in May, we''ll continue through June. We''ll have basically the same holidays -- Labor Day, Thanksgiving week, Christmas and spring breaks. Parent-teacher conferences also will remain.  

 

The big changes are "yellow days," five weeks of enrichment called Success Academy. We''ll have two weeks in late September and early October, another week when we come back from Christmas holidays and two weeks in the spring, either when we return from spring break or a week in February and one in March.  

 

Many school districts do summer enrichment programs but most are open only to families who can afford the fees. Education must be open to everyone.  

 

The Success Academies will have very specific purposes.  

 

Students who are behind -- either they scored minimal or basic on the Mississippi Curriculum Test the previous spring or are struggling on our regular monitoring exams -- will get intensive, individualized instruction in the core subjects of reading, language, math and science in small class settings -- six to eight students and one or two teachers.  

 

Attendance will be mandatory.  

 

For other students, the sky will be the limit; we''ll expand our magnet school themes with special enrichment programs, field trips, speakers and projects. We''ll open the door for teachers to be creative and innovative, bringing to the table all the ideas they''ve wanted to try but never have been able to do.  

 

For those students, the sessions won''t be mandatory, but we expect most will want to be a part of these fun learning opportunities.  

 

In all cases, parents will be invited to take part.  

 

We''ve been working on this hybrid schedule for months, talking with educators around the country, especially those who''ve gone to full-year school, to assess the pros and cons. And since we rolled the concept out to teachers last week, the response, for the most part, has been overwhelmingly positive.  

 

That''s not surprising. No one recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of our schools better than our teachers and education assistants who face the problems every day. Despite their critics, teachers are dedicated more to their students and their chances for success than they are to a paycheck.  

 

Some have questioned whether we''ll stigmatize some students through separation. We can''t continue to coddle those students or their parents. They, too, will one day be adults who, we hope, can become productive members of society. Giving them a break now short changes everyone later.  

 

And if our specialized focus and attention works as we think it will, we''ll have fewer and fewer of those students dragging down an entire class. They''ll move from intensive remedial work to the joys of enrichment programs, encouraging a lifetime of learning.  

 

Teachers will have flexibility to take part in all or some of the "Yellow Days." Many families will save money by not having to pay for a month of summer day care.  

 

The changing nature of colleges -- night classes, more online courses -- should allow teachers to continue to pursue advanced degrees. The extra month should not conflict with recreation programs and hopefully, churches -- many of which already have gone to evening vacation Bible schools -- will adjust summer schedules to compliment our academic initiatives.  

 

The program will cost about $1 million a year in extra pay for teachers and support staff, utilities, transportation and related costs. The federal stimulus money we''re receiving will cover some of those costs during the next two or three years. Savings we''ve produced in other parts of our budget will cover the rest, without increasing the burden on local taxpayers.  

 

I know this plan will pose problems for a few. The son of one of our biggest supporters attends a three-week camp every June. It is a unique program that is an important part of his life. And we will do our best to be sensitive to those situations.  

 

And yes, we may lose some students whose parents can''t or won''t adjust.  

 

But we must stay focused on what is best for the entire school district -- for all children who walk through our doors. This is an investment we can''t afford not to make.  

 

Our schools are being judged now against not just others in the state but against those across the country and even the world. The standards are more rigorous, as they must be. We are being held more accountable, as we should be.  

 

Our response must be as demanding and bold.  

 

Del Phillips is the superintendent of the Columbus Public Schools. His e-mail address is PhillipsD@columbus.k12.ms.us.