Jason Spears, board president for Columbus Municipal School District, talks about the district's improvements and hopes with Columbus Exchange Club members Larry Swartz, left, and Lee Burdine Thursday afternoon. Community engagement, Spears said, is one of the key factors that help better the district. Photo by: Yue Stella Yu/Dispatch Staff
February 21, 2020 10:44:14 AM
In the past few years, Jason Spears, Columbus Municipal School District's board of trustees president, said he has seen more district patrons "gathering at the river."
Referencing the old Christian hymn to the Columbus Exchange Club Thursday at Lion Hills Center, Spears said he has witnessed engagement from the community to help improve the district.
Spears, who joined the board in 2012, pointed to a pair of landmarks that has sparked a renaissance in parent and patron involvement -- the July 2018 hiring of Superintendent Cheire Labat and the Lowndes County Foundation's Community Conversation later that year that established multiple focus committees of stakeholders, one of which is aimed at improving area public educaton.
"Former educators in the school system ... talk about the glory days at the CMSD," Spears said. "Now a lot of them are back in the school again, whether it be through tutoring, whether it be through mentoring, whether it be just through some other relationships they have."
One of the key areas that the district values, Spears said, is student performance on end-of-year benchmark exams, which factors largely into the Mississippi Department of Education's annual accountability rating for schools and school districts, which are assigned on an A-F scale.
"For so long, whether it be changes in personnel, changes throughout the student base, the school district has been (rated) a D for a long time," Spears said.
Each elementary in the district and the middle school, however, has seen an increased percentage of top-tier students in their performances compared to the fall semester assessments in preparation for this year's exams, according to a report Spears presented to club members Thursday.
Pre-K--12 students are assessed periodically and ranked under the state's Multi-tiered System of Supports program (MTSS), which identifies struggling students who need targeted intervention, according to the Mississippi Department of Education website. Tier 1 represents those who need the least intervention, Spears said, whereas Tier 3 students are deemed "at risk."
The percentages of at-risk students shrank at each of the schools compared to that in the fall, and a higher percentage of students are making it into Tier 1, the report shows.
At Stokes Beard Elementary School, for example, the percentage of at-risk students on the subject of Reading dropped from 29 percent in the fall to 17 percent during the most recent assessment. Tier 1 students now make up 43 percent of all students compared to 18 percent last semester.
"Not only have they improved their skills from where their deficiencies may exist," Spears said, "they are learning new lessons for the grade they are in."
The district has also made progress financially, Spears said. It expects to pay off all of its debt by Fiscal Year 2024. After that, he said, instead of finding new debt to which to dedicate millage, he supports the district lowering its tax rate.
Taxes are collected from CMSD patrons through mills, which is based on the value of their real and personal property. Now, the CMSD millage rate sits at 61.11.
"Our goal is, as we near that pay-off date, we can cut about 10 or 11 mills ...," Spears said.
The district is also seeing an uptick in its enrollment after a drop last July, Spears said. The district also changed its policies to allow students to graduate early in December as long as they complete their coursework, he said, so that students can apply for schools or enter the workforce without having to wait for another semester.
Spears said he is optimistic about the district's future.
"We have ... everybody coming to the table," Spears said, "doing their role and whatever capacity they feel they need to be there just to support the school district, and that's led to a lot easier discussions in our boardroom."
Yue Stella Yu is the local government reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-328-2424 (ext 106) or follow her on Twitter @StellaYu_Mizzou
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