Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on two Oktibbeha County schools and their individual performance. Part Two will run in the Sunday edition of Starkville Daily News.
By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Several of the schools in the Oktibbeha County School District are facing serious pressure this school year to raise state standardized test scores.
Mississippi Department of Education representatives visited the Oktibbeha County School District Board of Trustees’ regular meeting on Monday and updated the board on the situation at East Oktibbeha County Elementary School and East Oktibbeha County High School. The department has spent the last few months working with the struggling schools to help improve not only test scores but student achievement.
In September, a six-person technical assistance team made up of retired school administrators visited the schools for one day and conducted classroom observations, interviews and a building walk-through. The team compiled a report listing the school’s strengths and challenges, along with findings and recommendations on leadership, curriculum and assessment, delivery of instruction and school climate and safety.
The report states EOCES’s strengths are “resources effectively managed by administration,” “supportive and focused leadership team,” “ample opportunities for cooperative and collaborative planning among teachers,” and “a safe and inviting learning environment.”
“Our leadership team tries to be as supportive as we can of our teachers and their needs in trying to instruct our students,” Principal Yolanda Magee said. “We feel like we have a good relationship where they feel like they can come to us and tell us if they feel they don’t have some materials they need or they want to bounce ideas off of us. Nobody is afraid to voice their opinion.”
The lists the school’s weaknesses as “professional development not focused on instructional deficiencies,” “data analysis did not result in significant revisions to curriculum and instruction,” “assessments lacked variety and did not reflect the designated level of difficulty,” and “classroom instruction not meaningful, relevant, engaging or rigorous.”
“This is not only the major common weakness at the two schools in east Oktibbeha, but the probably the major common weakness in all schools that we’re in is that the teachers are not instructing the students on a daily basis at the level that the students are assessed on the test in the spring,” Laura Jones, Mississippi Department of Education bureau manager of school improvement said. “They’re asking the students to basically just do memory-type work and what we call ‘recall type things,’ but then they get to the actual test and what we call the depth of knowledge that the kids have to use to answer the questions is so much deeper. If they haven’t been taught that way, the kids don’t know how to think that way. Naturally, they’re not going to perform well.”
In line with what Jones had previously observed at EOCES, the report stated the “principal (is) actively involved in curriculum development meetings,” there is a “strong instructional focus on the success of all students,” and the “resources and professional responsibilities (are) managed effectively.” However, the report said teachers were not getting enough feedback from classroom observations or job-embedded professional development and there wasn’t a data-driven improvement plan.
“The second biggest weakness is low expectations, which I did see at the high school, but not at the elementary school. They had very high expectations. The climate at the elementary school was much healthier than the climate at the high school,” Jones said. “It’s not always the problem, but it’s generally the problem that we see in most places.”
The report also found that the teachers were working together to collaborate. The curriculum is aligned with the state frameworks and student progress is monitored, but instructional revisions were not made based on the analysis of state test data.
While the report said teachers used instruction time effectively and managed student behavior well, it also said the instruction lacked the higher-order thinking skills needed to do well on the state tests.
“The problem is they’re not teaching it the way the test is asking it. We want them to teach kids to think, not just regurgitate information. What they’re asking them to do now is what people think of as teaching to the test, which is memorizing information and regurgitating on the test and then you’re done, move on. And that’s not how the test works,” Jones said. “The test wants you to take information that you’ve been taught, synthesize it in your brain so that you can then make a call about this question that you’re asked on the test based on what you know, not just what you’ve memorized.”
In terms of school climate and safety, the report said it was a safe, clean school and only criticized some poorly functioning technology.
Jones said she never expected to be back at EOCES again this year. She said she saw enthusiasm on the part of both the teachers and the administration and expected scores to go up, but that’s not what happened. In 2010, the school was listed as low performing with a Quality Distribution Index score, which is based on state standardized test scores, of 114. Instead of increasing, the QDI score dropped 13 points to 101, and the school remained at the low performing label.
“At the elementary school, we really thought we were moving in the right direction, but why that didn’t show when they took the tests in the spring — I don’t have a good answer for that,” Jones said. “We were shocked. That was a complete surprise. I stood in front of our state board and told them I couldn’t explain that one.”
Magee agreed the scores took her by surprise.
“I don’t know if we may have been trying to do too many things and not doing everything justice. We may have tried to tackle too many areas instead of focusing on one or two major issues,” she said.
The same team that performed the evaluation is continuing to work with the school to help coach the teachers and leadership team. A member of the technical assistance team is in the school at least once a week to observe and make suggestions. The team will work with the school all year to make sure everyone stays on track.
Unlike last year, the teachers and administration at EOCES are focusing their efforts to target specific areas that need improvement thanks to the help of the technical assistance team. The first goal is for the leadership team to chart the school’s progress. The administration regularly gives feedback to teachers on their progress and where they need to improve.
“We’re not providing that teacher with so much different feedback, but feedback that goes in one direction and allows them to grow in that direction,” Magee said. “Once they have seen success in that, we move on to something else. Instead of force feeding them too much, we give them little baby bites.”
The second goal is for the school to make good use of the technology. The school recently added 15 new computers and started using a program called Study Island which focuses on math, language arts and reading.
“It is a website that is based on student need. Students do a pre-test and it determines where students need more practice or more modeling. Then they are able to test out of that area, become successful and move on to another area,” Magee said. “It’s a lot more student-centered based on their needs.”
The use of technology helps keep students engaged in the lessons, she added.
The third goal is to increase job-embedded professional development for the teachers and administrators. Each Friday, the teachers have a two-hour peer coaching time where they advise each other. The administration also takes this time as an opportunity to work with the teachers to develop strategies.
Thus far, Magee said, the teachers at EOCES have been receptive to the changes and improvements.
“They want the best for these students. If that means a little more work, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. As a matter of fact, I had a teacher talk to me this morning and say, ‘You know, the light bulb popped on for me when I was at the school board meeting. I really understand the pressure that we’re under now.’ And just that in itself is a mountain I don’t have to climb anymore,” she said. “It made me feel better because they understand that what I’m asking of them is not for me, by any means; it’s for our students first, for our community and for our staff. We’re all on the same page now.”
This year, the teachers are making more data-driven decisions in the classroom based on student achievement thanks to a new program called the EZ Test Tracker. A teacher can see where a class or student’s strengths and weaknesses lie and make adjustments to instruction.
Magee said she is confident the school will see test scores rise this year thanks to the changes her team made. She has set the goal at a QDI score of 160.
“I would feel a lot less anxious if we got there, and I would feel that the effort that we put out is accomplishing something. I feel it will happen this year,” she said. “My teachers work hard, and I want them to feel successful. My students work hard, and I want the same thing for them.”
Jones said the situation is serious at three of the four county schools. According to the New Start School Program and Conversion Charter School Act of 2010, any school ranked as academic watch, lower performing or failing for three years in a row can be converted into a charter school if the community so desires.
“Current charter conversion says if anybody is in any of those three bottom categories for three years in a row, then 50 percent of the parents of the kids that go to that school sign a petition saying they want to convert it into a charter, then it goes to the state board,” she said. “There are 82 schools in year two of what we call charter conversion. All three schools, East Oktibbeha County Elementary, East Oktibbeha County High School and West Oktibbeha County High School — even though we’re not at West High because they made some progress — if they don’t make it to academic watch, then the public can petition the state board to convert those three schools into charter schools.”
The law may not hold up through the new legislative session, but Jones has instructed the schools to work as hard as they can so they won’t have to worry.
“It’s always in the back of our minds. We’re worried about it, but our priority is that our students get the best and that’s what they deserve,” Magee said. “Everybody here really cares about these children. We want the best for them and we are working hard to provide that for each and every student”
Though it is under tremendous pressure, the county school district has seen a Cinderella story before. In 2009, West Oktibbeha County Elementary was a failing school. In just a few years, Principal Andrea Temple was able to turn the school around. In 2011, it raised its QDI score by 23 points to a score of 147, ranking it as a successful school.
Temple said she has made sure the administration and teachers work closely together as a team. She meets with teachers on a bi-weekly basis to check on student progress. She said this relationship and support has been vital to the school’s growth.
“I visit between five to eight classrooms a day, so I’m in the classrooms daily. It’s so important for administrators to show support to the teachers,” she said. “I’m not there to catch them doing something wrong, but to highlight what they’re doing well.”
They implemented a program called RACE time, which stands for re-teach, analyze, check for understanding and evaluate. For a few hours each week, there are two certified teachers in the classroom who work with students in small groups to focus on individualized instruction.
Temple said she believes the other schools in the district can repeat her success.
“They have great teachers and great administrators, and I believe they can turn it around for our district and for our students,” she said.