/Tunica schools turn around after takeover

Tunica schools turn around after takeover

TUNICA — Tunica County School District was in disarray a year and a quarter ago. The state Education Department announced last month that it will recognize Tunica in its “Celebration of Excellence”, tour. This was due to the improvement of achievement of district’s poorest-performing students. The former superintendent and the school board were at odds during the 2014-2015 schoolyear. A lawsuit was filed by a member of the district leadership. Students in special education were not provided with the individualized accommodations required by law. Teachers were directed not to give students a lower than a C after 9-week test grades at the middle school were lost in fall 2014. Three of the five schools in the district were rated “D”, one was rated “F”, and one was rated “A”. The accountability grading system gave the state the rating of a district as a “D.” Gov. Governor. The state had previously taken control of the district, in which the majority of students are from low-income families and receive free or reduced lunch. This was the second such takeover. The first was 1997. The most recent turnover has local and state educators talking about their successes: Tunica saw the greatest growth in math among the lowest-performing 25% of elementary and high school students. Focus on learning and teaching Pulley stated that she transformed the district with a simple but effective strategy: teaching and learning. She stated that she has two goals. Pulley noted that it was important to understand the state’s accountability model. It places a lot of emphasis on student growth. This refers to the student’s ability to move from a lower level of performance to a higher one. In order to maintain data integrity and uniformity, the number of benchmark assessments rose in all schools. All of our tests are now generated from the central office. Pulley stated that the test is not available in the building until the day before the test, so I can be confident that I have accurate data. Only a few personnel moves were made at the school level. Valerie Davis, a long-time employee of the district, was hired by Pulley to replace the F-rated Robinsonville Elementary. The school was rated a “B” the following year. Davis, who is also the principal of the high school, stated that she made three personnel changes at Robinsonville Elementary and began to analyze student data, which was Pulley’s priority. “We dug into data at weekly data meetings. Teachers had to have their data every Tuesday and be able to identify anyone in the red zone. Davis stated that they had to attach a name to their data. “You could not talk with me about student data without calling (the person) by the name.” Teachers began to meet with struggling students during an intervention block that was built into the school day. Pulley stated, “We know that when students are at the bottom, they affect all of their growth.” Ashley McKay is the mother of a third-grader at Robinsonville and a kindergartner. She said that the school was in chaos under the previous administration. McKay, the president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, stated that “from pre-K to third grade, (my girl) had a different principal each year, so it was very volatile.” McKay also mentioned that the school’s rating dropped from a “B” to a “F” during this time. She said, “It was very disappointing as a parent because it was so proud of our schools, but we knew that we can do better than this.” McKay, along with others, submitted a petition to state education department asking for the removal of Stephen Chandler, then-superintendent. McKay met Pulley in her first visit to the district to learn how parents and other community members could assist her to turn the tide. She and others worked together to improve school attendance. McKay stated that one of the first things she did was help with advertising for school districts or community meetings. McKay and other volunteers helped parents register their children for the school year. This helped students prepare for the first day of school. Parents were kept informed about what was happening with their children. Tracy Duncan, a mother to two children from Robinsonville said that she was very well-informed as a parent. To keep parents informed, the school held monthly meetings. She noticed a change in the homework of her children. Duncan explained that teachers would send meaningful homework home that would be consistent with the standards my children were learning. Davis stated that the hard work is still ahead. It is difficult to sustain that progress after moving a failing school. She said, “I have never worked harder in my entire life.” It is harder to sustain what you’ve achieved the first time. High school improvements Derrick Dace (ex-principal at Rosa Fort High School) said that when Pulley arrived, the district was “in disarray.” Pulley quickly addressed the most pressing issues at the high school level, including data, testing, dual enrollment, graduation, and ACT scores. Rosa Fort High School teachers gave up planning time to help students in need. Derrick Dace, former principal of the school and current director of federal programs for the district, would step in whenever needed. Dual enrollment was also increased at the school, where students can also enroll in classes at the community colleges. The number of dual-enrolled students rose from less than 10 to 60 to 70. The district leaders examined the obstacles to dual enrollment, including the high cost of textbooks and course fees. The district paid for textbooks and student fees, and community college teachers visited high schools to teach classes. Pulley and Dace stated that dual enrollment was made easier by making college courses available on campus and during the day. My attitude was that you would have to pay for it. Pulley stated that they would pay for remediation if the students don’t receive the education required to graduate high school. Students who did well were also offered incentives, such as pizza parties and ice cream. The King Museum in Indianola, and college tours. “I’m certain he (Dace), had children that probably hadn’t been to Indianola or Mississippi, and I don’t know if they believed it. Pulley explained that while it sounds funny, “you’ve got you kidding,” but he didn’t want the children to go to a basketball match. “You have to expose the kids to the four-year college.” Rosa Fort was the high-performing high school in math, with the lowest average math growth. It was also among the top five percent in English and Language Arts growth. It received a C on this year’s accountability ratings. This is just 10 points short of the threshold for a B. Former principal Dace stated that tests were made for teachers starting with 9-week assessments and then going on to four-and-a-half-week assessments. Then, it went on to every two weeks. “We knew who to move.” Despite the school’s drastic improvements, ACT scores remain low, which are taken by all high school juniors. The average ACT score in the district was 16. This is a two-point improvement from last year. The future of Tunica While many in the community are pleased with the improvements made last year, they fear for Tunica’s uncertain future. McKay, a parent at Robinsonville Elementary said that she is unsure of how a new superintendent or school board will be chosen after the state leaves. McKay stated that she is unsure if MDE (Mississippi Department of Education), and other people will choose school board members. “MDE being not a part of the community and us not being allowed to vote for people, I don’t know what process they’ll have to get community input on applicants for the school board.” The school district elected Derrick Dace as its new superintendent before the state took control. It is not clear if Dace will become the next superintendent after the state took control and the Legislature passed legislation requiring that all superintendents be appointed, rather than elected. McKay stated that he hoped they would honor the wishes of the community by appointing Derrick Dace. The governor will set the date for election of the new board members. After that, either all five of them are elected or a mixture of elected and appointed take their places. The new board then elects the superintendent. Officials from the Mississippi Department of Education point to Tunica’s success as an example for other troubled school districts. However, some residents are concerned about what will happen if the district is handed back to locals. Gretchen Kagle (department’s director for special education), said that the district has made remarkable progress in the past 18 months to one year. They were unable to correct the district’s worst violations in special education. She said that the initial report showed so many violations – I don’t know how many – but they worked hard with support from our office. “We lived in Tunica last year, and Pulley hired a new special education director, who continued the work that we had started.” Kagle stated that the district had 290 IEPs (or individualized education plans) for special education students, which it needed to correct. This number has been reduced to six or less. Pulley has not been given a timetable to continue working with the district. When asked when she thinks she will be done, she responds, “When the work is complete.” Read more stories at Mississippitoday.org