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District relying on top teachers to lead turnaround

JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT —  Sixth-grade teacher Eric Smith covers up the answer to a question he just asked while reviewing how to find speed using distance and time with students Friday at Robert Lewis Magnet School. Smith and other top teachers in the district will be a key to improving academic achievement in the district, Superintendent Frederick Hill said. Smith was named the teacher of the year at Frazier Elementary last year.
JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT —
Sixth-grade teacher Eric Smith covers up the answer to a question he just asked while reviewing how to find speed using distance and time with students Friday at Robert Lewis Magnet School. Smith and other top teachers in the district will be a key to improving academic achievement in the district, Superintendent Frederick Hill said. Smith was named the teacher of the year at Frazier Elementary last year.

This is the second in a series examining the next steps for improving the Natchez-Adams School District.

NATCHEZ — Eric Smith — clad in cowboy boots, camo shorts and a rainbow clown wig — showered public praise on his sixth-grade students last Friday.

He camped out on the roadside in front of the school to fulfill a promise and promote a pact.

“I made a deal with my students that if they reached a certain level on their evaluation assessments, then I would stand out there in a crazy outfit and hold up a sign,” the math teacher said. “The sign said, ‘Mr. Smith’s students reached their STAR math scores,’ and all the kids loved it.”

Smith, a teacher at Robert Lewis Magnet School, said he hopes his public humiliation will show his students that if they hold up their end of the deal — making the grade — then he’ll keep his promises, too.

“Whatever I have to do to get these kids excited and motivated about learning, I’m going to do it,” he said. Smith was one of seven teachers selected as a 2013 teacher of the year for the Natchez-Adams School District.

And the district will need more teachers like those seven to achieve desired academic improvements, Superintendent Frederick Hill said.

Based on recently released state accountability results, the Natchez public schools received overall failing marks. That’s unacceptable, Hill has said, and the race is on to see change before next year’s results.

“Teachers have the greatest impact in moving this district forward because they are the front-line leaders in the classroom,” Hill said. “They know what the students need to do to advance in their academics, and they have the greatest amount of impact.”

Providing teachers with the appropriate resources, Hill said, as well as recognition and support, will be fundamental to seeing improvements throughout the district.

“Saying we don’t have low morale wouldn’t be accurate, but what I’m seeing more of is teachers saying, ‘We won’t be a failing school district anymore,’” Hill said. “So we need to recognize and spotlight the folks that are working hard, putting forth the effort and are showing efforts to improve.”

Eric Smith — Frazier Elementary 2013 teacher of the year

Smith was a fourth-grade teacher at Frazier Elementary School last year, before RLMS opened as a magnet school. It was at Frazier that his fellow teachers voted him teacher of the year.

Smith said his three years in the classroom quickly taught him that today’s students are motivated differently than students were when he was in school.

“The norm used to be you were rewarded with a homework pass or having your paper put on the board, but now you have to really go outside the box to find ways to get these kids motivated to reach their goals,” Smith said. “So when they see their teacher out on the side of the road keeping a promise, they will do everything possible to keep from letting you down because they see that the teacher is just as much in the game with them.”

Smith said his teaching style is a mixture of lecture and hands-on learning with technology added into the mix.

“I also use data daily to drive my instruction because if you’re not a data-driven teacher in 2013, then you’re spinning your wheels,” he said.

Smith analyzes scores from tests given throughout the year to decide what he needs to teach in the classroom.

“If that child is weak in a certain subject then I need to intervene, but if that child is strong in that area, I let them keep going and help them go further.”

Lance Reed — Natchez High 2013 teacher of the year

An eight-letter word written in red in the corner of Lance Reed’s dry-erase board sums up the expectation.“From the first day of school, I write ‘advanced’ on the board and tell them that’s what our goal is,” Reed said. “I remind the group that they are the ones that have the responsibility of taking a test that grades our school, so I do put a little pressure on them.

Lance Reed was the 2013 Natchez High teacher of the year.
Lance Reed was the 2013 Natchez High teacher of the year.

“But it’s more just helping them realize that what they’re doing is really important, not only for themselves, but for their school and their community.”

Reed’s Natchez High School students must take state tests — part of the Subject Area Testing Program — each spring. He

teaches Algebra I — which is one of four subjects assessed in annual tests — and advanced placement calculus.

“When they come in here and recognize that you’re serious about the craft and what you’re trying to do, it makes a difference,” said Reed, who is also the school’s football coach. “It’s tough sometimes to teach from bell to bell and keep the students motivated, but you just have to keep redirecting them and keep them focused on what’s at stake.”

Reed said he uses the school’s recent “F” rating as motivation for change.

“In my mind we’re not a failing school just because that’s the label given to us on the state’s measuring tool,” Reed said. “We have some great students here, and there is learning going at Natchez High School.”

Tonya Washington — Central Alternative School 2013 teacher of the year

Students won’t be hearing about the quality distribution index — or QDI — often in Tonya Washington’s classroom.

Washington, who previously taught science at the Central Alternative School, now teaches sixth-grade students at RLMS.

Tonya Washington, who now teaches at the magnet school, was the 2013 teacher of the year for Central Alternative School.
Tonya Washington, who now teaches at the magnet school, was the 2013 teacher of the year for Central Alternative School.

The evaluation scale used to rank each school and the district as a whole is important to Washington, but not as important as ensuring her students succeed in the real world.

“I don’t walk around saying, ‘I want my QDI to be such and such,’ because that means I’m just focusing on the test,” Washington said. “The students know the importance of the test, but if that’s all I teach then I’m not living up to my expectations of preparing these students for what’s waiting out there for them.”

Applying real-world scenarios to the material she teaches is one way Washington said she can kill two birds with one stone.

“If I cover all the skills that are going to be on the test and my students grasp those concepts, they’re going to do well on the test, and they’ll also learn more than just what’s on the test,” Washington said. “You have to bring in examples of how this will apply to them in everyday life to keep them motivated and eager to learn.”

Washington said she’s excited to be a part of a district she feels is improving.

“I know we have the students and teachers that can do what needs to get done,” Washington said. “Whatever I need to do to make sure these students have the necessary skills to move this district forward, I’m willing to do that.”

Hayes Harris — McLaurin Elementary 2013 teacher of the year

Hayes Harris knows his McLaurin Elementary School students will be ready when they sit down to take the Mississippi Curriculum Test this spring.

The MCT2 is given to students in grades three through eight in language arts and mathematics.

Hayes Harris was the teacher of the year at McLaurin Elementary.
Hayes Harris was the teacher of the year at McLaurin Elementary.

“The MCT2 is not a test where students are able to just recall information — it is a complex design that requires students to read the testing information, analyze it, and apply what they’ve been taught,” Harris, who teaches fourth grade math and science, said.  “The structure of the questions is designed to make the students think critically by reading and decomposing information.

“So, by May, when the MCT2 is administered, students are familiar with the format because our routine has prepared them for it.”

Harris uses a testing strategy called UNRA(A)VEL, which was created by long-time educator Larry Bell.

The strategy is an acrostic, which uses each letter in the word to form a test-taking tip. The “U,” for example, stands for “underline the title” and the “N” for “now predict the passage.”

Harris said the testing strategy has shown results in the past and is one he continues to use in his classroom.

“After the fifth week of school, students are demonstrating their familiarity with the structure of the testing questions,” Harris said.

But aside from performing well on the state tests, Harris said ensuring his students leave the fourth grade ready for the challenges ahead is just as important.

“We are not just preparing students for a test at the end of the year — we prepare them for long-term success,” Harris said. “We believe that our students can be life-long learners who can function within the global community.”

Roderick Holmes — West Elementary 2013 teacher of the year

Roderick Holmes knows he must create a solid educational foundation with his first-grade students in order for them to succeed down the road.

“I’m trying to prepare them for everything that’s coming and not only just looking at the test,” Holmes said. “If we can prepare a child overall to succeed, then when it comes to taking those tests they won’t have any problem with that.

Roderick Holmes, right, was named the district-wide teacher of the year. He reads through a book with student Joshua Meredith during class at West Elementary.
Roderick Holmes, right, was named the district-wide teacher of the year. He reads through a book with student Joshua Meredith during class at West Elementary.

“But the first thing you have to do is care about their education and keep them motivated and actively engaged.”

Holmes, who is beginning his sixth year in the district, was first honored as the teacher of the year at West, but then won the overall district title as well.

Holmes describes his teaching style as eclectic, saying he uses a variety of methods to reach a variety of students.

“All of the children have the ability to learn, but they don’t all learn the same way, so you have to reach out to all those different learning styles — kinetic, auditory and visual,” Holmes said. “From my first year to my sixth year, it’s been a lot of trial and error and just finding out what works and sticking with that.

“It helps to be around seasoned teachers that you can learn from and talk about what works and what doesn’t.”

Holmes said increased professional development opportunities and other changes throughout the district have motivated him to improve the district’s accountability results.

“It’s disappointing to be a part of a district that’s failing, but it also gives me an opportunity to really help us get back on track,” Holmes said. “I believe in all of my co-workers, teachers and students.”

The other two 2013 teachers of the year are no longer with the NASD. Bernice Jackson-Lewis was named teacher of the year for Fallin Career and Technology Center and is no longer a district employee. Christine Harris was named teacher of the year for Morgantown Middle School and retired after nearly 30 years of teaching.

 

 

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