Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — McLaurin Elementary School fifth-graders practice decimals using iPads and writing on their desks in an accelerated math class Friday. From left are Shaylin Guadagno, 10, Mia Johnson and Ashanti Brown, both 11.
Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — McLaurin Elementary School fifth-graders practice decimals using iPads and writing on their desks in an accelerated math class Friday. From left are Shaylin Guadagno, 10, Mia Johnson and Ashanti Brown, both 11.

Natchez school officials look to spread McLaurin’s success

Published 12:01am Sunday, September 15, 2013

NATCHEZ One constant has remained in the Natchez-Adams School District through failing accountability results and low test scores — McLaurin Elementary School.

McLaurin, one of the district’s three elementary schools, continually has been ranked above other schools in the district over the past four years in Mississippi’s accountability rankings, which measure student performance based on rigorous curriculum and assessments.

In the 2013 results released Friday, McLaurin Elementary School received a “C” rating and was the only in the school in the district not to receive an “F” rating.

“My conversations with principals (after seeing the results) is that I needed someone who could do the same thing that was done at McLaurin — break down the data and make the appropriate changes,” Superintendent Frederick Hill said. “That’s the approach that needs to be taken at every school in the district.”

In 2009, McLaurin was labeled as an “at risk of failing” school.

Since then, McLaurin has continued to rise in rankings leaving district officials and school board members eager to dissect the successes of the school and spread it across the district.

“That’s one thing we asked after seeing the results — what’s McLaurin doing that the other schools aren’t?” school board member Tim Blalock said.

Data analysis 

Former McLaurin principal Alice Morrison attributes the school’s successes to many things, including dedicated and motivated teachers, students and administrators.

Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — McLaurin Elementary School fifth-grader Semaj Jackson, 10, takes a breather while getting help from teacher Lauren Mullins while practicing decimals.
Justin Sellers / The Natchez Democrat — McLaurin Elementary School fifth-grader Semaj Jackson, 10, takes a breather while getting help from teacher Lauren Mullins while practicing decimals.

But the tool used to motivate at the school all comes from one thing.

“You have to let the data drive your instruction,” said Morrison, now the principal at West Elementary School. “It’s really all about empowering teachers, and when you make them take ownership of the data, they turn around and use it empower the students.

“When they begin to take ownership of their data and see the progress in scores, it makes all the difference.”

Analyzing data, Morrison said, includes everything from weekly assessments to the annual state tests — Mississippi Curriculum Test 2 (MCT2) and Subject Area Testing Program (SATP).

Data boards containing class test scores are displayed in most McLaurin classrooms, showing students where they are and where they need to be.

“In every grade, kindergarten through fifth grade, we look at data and analyze what’s working and what they need help with,” Morrison said. “That’s important because there’s not a universal learning plan for every student in the school.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach because every child is different, so you need to look at the data to see how we can help them progress.”

McLaurin was also the only school in the district this year to meet its growth target — one of three factors in the ranking system that measures the improvements students make on state tests.

Test score performance is based on a formula called a quality of distribution index.

A QDI score is represented on a scale of zero to 300, with higher numbers showing a better rating.

McLaurin received a 155 QDI this year, which is 13 points higher than its 2012 score.

Hill said McLaurin’s ability to analyze data after a benchmark assessment given in March, which was utilized as a predictor of student’s performances on the state tests, was one of many keys to the school’s success.

“One thing I was proud to see was that Mrs. Morrison spent time with her teachers breaking down the data and that makes all the difference in the world,” Hill said. “Knowing which students are getting it, which students are not getting it and going back and individualizing instruction for those individuals is important.”

The same type of data analysis that was done at McLaurin should be happening at every school in the district, Hill said.

“This district is data rich, and there’s no reason any teacher or administrator can’t get the data they need to help make decisions in the classroom,” Hill said. “Every time we are able to obtain data, I meet with principals and pretty much demonstrate to them the same way they should have conversations with teachers about the data.

“That’s when we need to see what’s going with this particular teacher, subject or standard that the students are not mastering.”

Spreading the positives 

In May, Hill announced that several administrators around the district would be calling different schools home in August in an effort to help move the district forward.

Longtime principals were moved to newly created academic coach positions in the curriculum department, while others administers simply shifted throughout the various district schools.

Those changes included moving Morrison to West after she spent nearly 12 years at McLaurin.

Morrison was promoted to principal at McLaurin in 2006 after serving as assistant principal for two years under then principal Karen Tutor.

“It was difficult to leave McLaurin because I did have a lot of time invested at the school, but this is where I’m needed,” Morrison said, speaking of West. “I’m doing some tweaking here, but it’s going to be the same concepts from McLaurin, just tailoring those to West.”

School board member Benny Wright said Thursday after seeing the district’s accountability results that he believed the administration changes were going to be vital to the district’s improvement.

“All the seminars I’ve attended about a superintendent who took a low-performing district and turned it around involved the same particular strategy Dr. Hill has done in moving principals around,” Wright said. “Dr. Hill has made those changes, and I’m convinced that in another year, we’re going to see some dramatic results.”

High expectations 

As current McLaurin principal Jerry Knight walked down the school’s hallways last week, he couldn’t help but be excited for the future.

“I just started pumping my fist and saying, ‘Yes,’ over and over,” Knight said. “I looked around to the various classrooms and was just very excited to see motivated teachers teaching and eager students learning in the classroom.

“It was a really good feeling.”

The level of high expectations at McLaurin, Knight said, is unlike any other he’s seen before and one he hopes to continue in the coming year.

“Even before I’m done analyzing data, the teachers have already seen the data and are coming up to me saying, ‘Look at these improvements,’” Knight said. “It’s that level of expectation that was given to these teachers who then turn around and instill it in their students.

“Everyone has really bought into it, and it’s working.”

Morrison said the culture of high expectations was one she worked to build at McLaurin and will now look to transfer to West.

“Excellence in student achievement is the expectation I strived for and expected out of my teachers and students,” Morrison said. “It takes a lot of time and effort, but you just have to have the right attitude.”

And even with the bar set so high at McLaurin, Knight said he would not shy away from pushing to go above and beyond the current expectations.

“I’ve told my teachers I want to shoot for a 175 to 200 QDI for this year, and the teachers are saying, ‘We can do it,’” Knight said. “There is a little pressure to succeed, but that pressure is there whether you’re talking about a successful school or not, because ultimately we’re talking about educating children.

“And the end of the day, every school in the district is trying to be successful, and that’s what we’re striving for.”