Thursday, September 27, 2007
Forum focuses on education in county
By SUE WATSON
The superintendents of the Marshall County and Holly Springs school districts and a charter board member of the county industrial development authority (IDA) participated in an NAACP-sponsored forum on education Saturday at Asbury United Methodist Church with about 40 attending.
Paul Lampley, Marshall County chapter of the NAACP president and Holly Springs School Board trustee, set the tone for panel discussions saying the forum was “for information sharing, what we can do and where we can start.”
“This has nothing to do with personnel or (school) systems and we are not going to go there,” he said.
NAACP education committee chair Agnes Foster welcomed guests.
William “Bill” Scott, representing IDA on the panel, said an IDA proposal released in June this year called for a study of the educational needs of the county with the hope that developers of subdivisions in the northern portion of the county would build a new school as residential growth is on the increase in the area in concert with economic and industrial development.
He said the county had missed opportunities to attract an engine block plant and the Toyota assembly plant.
“The engine block plant went to Tennessee and the Toyota plant went to Union County,” Scott said. “One thing that tends to steer industry away from us is our education system.”
The county is positioned strategically from the standpoint of transportation for expansion and has Rust College and universities all around it, but is still missing out on opportunities, he said.
“So if you have problems with the public school system and you go public on negotiations, you automatically take yourself out of the running,” Scott said, referencing the Burlington Northern rail yard negotiations for a site in Red Banks that met public opposition after negotiations with IDA were leaked.
“Many of the big industries want to move in and bring in top people. So they want good schools for their children,” he said. “We have a problem and we all have to admit that. We have to figure out what is the root of the problem.”
Holly Springs Mayor Andre’ DeBerry, who served on the workforce development committee with C.R.E.A.T.E. Foundation, said a commissioned study by that organization looked at the transportation corridor with respect to topics like education, racial reconciliation and one of the major flaws uncovered was insufficient adult education.
Major manufacturing companies look for a workforce with a minimum of an eighth grade education, he said.
“We looked at the dropout rate and were told Marshall County was higher than the region,” he said.
Based on data from grades 9 through 12, he said, area graduation rate is about 55 percent.
Approximately 39 percent of the adult workforce in the area was found to have less than a ninth grade education, DeBerry said.
“That’s a number we’ve got to address to get in-school programs to work with students who don’t graduate,” he said.
If parents do not have an education, it is not a high priority to them,” DeBerry said.
“We spend a lot of time working on our golden egg, our children, but not enough attention on the goose, the parents,” he said. “I venture to say all of us who have gone through education had somebody who pushed us. That’s where we have to be more vigilant, to make sure we push education.”
Irene Walton, superintendent of the Holly Springs school district, said all schools in the district are Level 2, but beneath the surface growth is taking place - for instance in second grade math and sixth grade language arts.
“Accreditation is an issue and we received Advised Status,” she said.
“We are not in denial about where we are, and are working diligently in every area,” she said. “Never has anything been gained by us tearing each other apart.”
Don Randolph, superintendent of the county school district, said statements made by IDA over the summer caused school administrators to fear that “schools had become a whipping post.”
“IDA does their business; I’m in the business of educating students,” he said.
He added that the private and parochial schools were left out of IDA’s plan for a comprehensive study.
Armed with data, Randolph detailed the county school district’s strategy for meeting state and federal requirements and confusing reports on dropout and graduation rates.
He said the elementary schools at Byhalia and Byers schools had been broken out into elementary and middle schools so the district could pinpoint where the district was slipping behind. Corrections in staffing were made where needed districtwide to address proficiency scores and achievement levels, he said.
The county school district serves 3,389 students and is fully accredited. Two schools are Level 4, four schools are Level 3 and two schools are Level 2 schools.
“It’s a game you have to learn to play,” he said. “We talk about our strengths and go to work on our weaknesses.”
A school attendance problem at Byhalia Middle School hurt achievement levels there, he believes.
“We were a 2.8 and knocking on the door of a 3.0, and because of the 70 percent rule we didn’t get to count this school,” Randolph said.
About 30 students who attended the middle school less than 70 percent of the school year, tested high on proficiency but those numbers could not be added in with the middle school’s achievement data, he said.
“So, if you have in-transits, that’s a part of the game,” Randolph said. “You have to document and have everything in place to reach these levels.”
Also, special needs students were included, taught and tested in the regular academic classrooms.
“That group becomes a subgroup and has to perform like other groups,” he said, “if you are going to mesh and be a part of the game.”
If a class has insufficient numbers of students testing proficient on achievement tests, then the teacher of the class is deemed accountable, Randolph said.
“We have pinpointed specific teachers who were not doing the job. Then we had to make personnel changes. This is a serious thing to me, not anything you can play with.”
Randolph said the school district does not allow complacency from its principals but sets a high bar.
The principals are to strategize with teachers to identify weak performance in class that can knock a school off target level, he said.
Drop-out rates and graduation rates are not the same, he said. School district figures showed a 5 percent dropout rate last year, not the 30 percent reported by state sources, he said. The discrepancy in figures was an artifact of formulas used to calculate dropout rates.
These formulas have reported a nationwide dropout rate of 30 percent and about 40 percent for Mississippi, Randolph said.
“It depends on when you track and the state manual. We lost about 25 students and we’ve been beat to death about dropout rates. Our attendance is sent to Jackson every day and we don’t have a 30 percent dropout rate.
“You have to have a plan to keep students from dropping out,” Randolph said. “Sometimes you need just one more student to be proficient to make another level.”
Potts Camp was a Level 5 based on achievement alone, and if growth (Adequate Yearly Progress) had been enough the school would have received a Level 5 rating, he said.
Only two schools in the district failed to meet AYP standards, he said, H.W. Byers which did not meet the graduation rate standard and Byhalia High School which missed AYP in Algebra I subject area tests.
Another factor in student achievement has to do with the community and culture, he said.
“You talk up to your students and don’t talk down.”
When the culture is toxic, Randolph said school personnel have to be positive, of good morale and employ teamwork.
Positive communities are being acknowledged, Randolph said, citing Byhalia, and the Galena PTA who came before the school board to thank them for recent repairs on the buildings.
Potts Camp School held an after-school, communitywide celebration for successful achievement scores.
“We think our communities in the county schools are stepping forward,” he said.
“In closing, I would hope somewhere along the way we’d begin to get some positive comments about education from IDA. The reason Toyota came to North Mississippi is because of (our) work ethic and clean air. They (Toyota) knew we would work. One supplier went to Fulton because of work ethic. Education is not the only reason industry is not in the county.”
The meeting closed after comment from the floor. One member said, “We have people who will just not go to work on Monday.”
“It seems like the panel has looked at two key components (economic development); education is going to be tied to it and workforce training and development,” Kelvin Buck said.
“What else do we need going on to change this perception? A (Level) Two is a Two. How can we get to a Level Four? How will that fit in with private and parochial schools?”
Buck reminded the group that The South Reporter “is not the lead on schools and education in the state and where our schools fit in.”
“First, schools have to take responsibility for its instruction and quality of its staff,” she said. “Any child can learn if they have time. We could look at extended day but it has to be quality.
“So we have to talk up education in the schools, the community and the churches. The bottom line is schools have to take responsibility.
“We’re in a geographical area where it’s hard to keep staff. We have to grow our own. We’ve got to work on some things.
“We have a school at Level 2.9 and one at 2.5, right at the door of a Level 3. But to do it by ourselves - it can’t be done. Parents, the community, and mainly when a child comes (to school) they’ve got to know education is important.
“Parents have to tell their children - to push them. The bottom line is the school has to (respond) first and then everybody else needs to come with us.”
Scott added, “If parents are in an adversarial role, that school does not grow.”
W.A. McMillan asked two questions of the panel. Do educators think a comprehensive assessment of education would be helpful and whether the school districts should be consolidated (administratively)?
Randolph said the county school district has the data required for a study but he thinks the school district should be in control of the study.
“I’d like $150,000 to do a study,” he said.
Randolph asked if consolidation meant building a large state-of-the-art school and about four good administrators.
McMillan said he meant that consolidating the districts would cut administrative costs by having one superintendent and one school board. The savings could be applied elsewhere.
He said the schools could be consolidated by decision of the two school boards, decision of the legislature, or by decision of the board of aldermen to turn the school district over to the county, thereby dissolving the Holly Springs School District.
“Some aldermen say that’s a hot potato,” McMillan said.
Randolph said he would leave that up to the school boards.
Walton said she wanted more information about the elements of a comprehensive study.
Buck said a study would look for opportunities to determine the future direction of schools in the county in general and look at things like the best locations for schools.
Then the matter would be put before the people to see what they think, he said.
Taxes going up would be a first objection, a member of the audience said.
Shirley Byers said she did not understand why consolidation is wanted.
“Leaders could put together and expand offerings of courses,” Buck said. “It’s not a new concept.”
Fannie Lampley made three points – that parents must be involved in the education of their children and in the district; a qualified and quality staff is a must; and most important, community support must be of one accord.
One person commented that there are some qualified people in the community who could serve on an assessment team.
“What happens if you decide to do a comprehensive study?
“Everyone decides to sit at the same table,” he said, “and talk about their stuff in front of each other.”
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