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NASD approves magnet school

NATCHEZ — Current fifth-grade students in the Natchez public schools will have the opportunity to be one of 125 students to attend a magnet school in August at the former Robert Lewis Middle School.

The Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees voted Thursday to approve a proposal for a magnet school with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.

The first year of the school will only serve sixth-grade students, with the eventual goal of phasing in a grade level each year until the school reaches eighth grade.

Superintendent Frederick Hill said limiting the program to sixth graders for the first year would help allow for a one-year pilot program in order to continue to improve and perfect the school.

“We want this school to serve as a model for what we’re trying to do in the district,” Hill said. “We also have a long-range goal of how we want the high schools to look.

“If students start exposure in sixth and seventh grades, we can remodel the high school to how we want them to look and those high schools can support those students once they leave.”

Morgantown Middle School Assistant Principal Zandra McDonald, who also served as chair of a magnet steering committee, said the district wanted to start a magnet program at the middle school level because students at that age often lose focus and enthusiasm in schoolwork when not challenged.

“A lot of time, we start losing children at grade six, and they start disengaging themselves in school,” McDonald said. “They lose interest and fire, and we figure if we can gather students and expose them to material they’re really interested in, we can hold them throughout the next six years.”

Apart from teaching STEM curriculum, the school will also use project-based learning as the primary mode of instruction.

Project-based learning is a student-centered instructional strategy in which students collaboratively answer questions and solve problems and then reflect on their experiences.

School board member Thelma Newsome said the various magnet schools she and other district officials visited in February utilized project-based learning with great success.

“We’ve got to put a curriculum in place that’s going to challenge all of our students,” Newsome said. “If all teachers are teaching children with rigor and vigor, that should not be a problem.”

Admission to the school will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis for the first 125 students. If more than 125 students apply, a lottery will be offered to fill the available slots.

Hill emphasized that a student’s past discipline infractions won’t play a part in the admission decision.

“We have to be careful not to create a school of elite children,” Hill said. “If we create policies that students can’t be admitted because of behavior, that’s going to happen.

“What we need to do is make sure students are succeeding.”

Part of the admission process will require an interview of both the child and the parents or guardians.

“The idea is to set the expectations before the kids go into the school so once they get there they can’t say, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be like this,’” Hill said. “This way, it’s all out on the table.”

If a lottery is implemented, students not included in the 125 available positions will be placed on a waiting list.

Applications for students will be available in April.

A town hall meeting to discuss the magnet school will be hosted at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Natchez Community Center.

In other news from the meeting:

•Zollie Stevenson Jr., associate professor of educational leadership at Howard University and auditor for Phi Delta Kappa International, presented the board and audience members with the results of a district-wide curriculum audit.

The audit, Stevenson said, is a discrepancy audit meant to bring to light the improvements needed in the district’s curriculum and professional development, among other areas.

“The audit is only focused on the things you’re not doing well, and it has some suggestions on how to improve those things,” Stevenson said. “So don’t be mad because you brought us in to give you feedback on the things you need to improve.”

The audit standards that served as the basis of the audit included control, direction, connectivity, feedback and productivity.

The major findings of the audit revealed a limited evidence of planning at the school district in terms of a systematic, cohesive planning process and a district-wide plan necessary for preventing deterioration of education opportunities for students.

“There’s a lot of conversation of where the district ought to go, but until you put it into a plan, you don’t have anything that can be monitored to see if those things are being addressed that were agreed upon,” Stevenson said.

In the feedback standard, Stevenson said the district lacked comprehensive student assessment and program evaluation.

“If you have a program in place and you’re set on spending money in the district, who is evaluating those programs to make sure the implementation is effective and non-effective?” Stevenson said. “There has to be some kind of systemic review of what (students) needs are and make decisions to keep stuff or get rid of it based on analysis.”

Some of those programs also involve the use of technology within the district.

“I’ve never seen a district that had as much technology,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t say how it’s being used, but you have technology.”

And while the results did uncover several areas in which the district needs to improve, Hill said that was the intent of the audit from the beginning.

“We expected to hear just about all of those things, and I wanted to hear it and everyone else to hear it from an outsider to show and validate that these are the problems we have in the district,” Hill said. “We’ve been kind of slow about starting changes without the audit results, because you don’t want to go one way and have to turn around and go the other way down the road.

“Now we can start implementing the changes that we need to put in place to move the district forward.”

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