State official talks takeover, confident district can get out of ‘F’ rating

Published 12:13am Friday, December 13, 2013

NATCHEZ — A Mississippi Department of Education official told Natchez-Adams School District board members Thursday there is no doubt the district can pull itself out of the “F” rating category to avoid a state takeover in September.

MDE Office of School Improvement Director Laura Jones gave a presentation during the board’s monthly meeting to ensure the board, district officials and community members were clear about the state law that could allow for a state takeover.

Morgantown Middle School and Natchez High School have received an “F” rating from the state for two consecutive years. Another “F” rating in September means the schools will be taken over by the state, which would consist of terminating all school employees and finding replacements.

The two schools in the district are among approximately 50 schools in 35 school districts throughout the state that could be taken over next year, Jones said.

“I want to try to put folks a little more at ease, not to say we should draw back the reins and slow down on what you’re doing because there still needs to be a distinctive sense of urgency,” Jones said. “But what the law says we have to do, is not what we’ve done in the past.”

Jones said before this year, the state has only gotten to the three-year failing scenario three times, two of which required different responses than what would occur in the NASD.

The third situation in Yazoo City Municipal School District is one Jones hopes could become a model for how the state would give assistance to those schools or districts in need. Instead of firing all employees, Jones said Yazoo City High School was given a corrective action plan and a state adviser.

“The good thing is the local folks stay in control and hopefully make changes that are necessary, and so far Yazoo City is doing that,” Jones said. “We did remove their accreditation, which affected extracurricular activities, but if they continue to meet those criteria, by mid spring their accreditation will be restored and the school will be turned back to local control.”

Jones also attempted to calm the nerves of those considering the worst-case scenario of a state takeover.

“We want to make sure the staff and faculty at those two schools don’t get spooked and run away for fear they won’t have a job,” Jones said. ‘There’s nothing in the law that would preclude the department from hiring back the people that are doing a good job.

“If they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and growing children, they have no need to worry and no reason to be concerned.”

While Jones said MDE officials continue to pursue changes to the state law through the legislature, there is no guarantee a scenario similar to that in Yazoo City would be implemented at other schools.

“Maybe if you guys talk to the people you elect and send to Jackson and help them understand this law is not fair and it’s not executable, because we can’t shut down schools in September for three weeks,” Jones said. “We don’t argue with the premise of the law, because if you have a school failing children for three years, it ought to be shut down.

“We argue the fact that it should apply to schools going backward and not forward, and that we have to work out an executable timeline.”

Board President Wayne Barnett asked Jones if the three-week period where the state would work to hire positions to fill those terminated at the school would have to be made up later in the school year.

“You’d have to, which makes (executing the law) impossible because kids would be in school until June,” Jones said. “And what are the kids going to do for three weeks while you shut the school down?

“We know what (the state) is trying to do, but the way this law is written is not the way to handle it.”

Superintendent Frederick Hill said he thought the Yazoo City model of a state takeover would be more ideal than the alternative, but the district’s goal is to avoid getting to that point all together.

“Whatever is going to serve the children best, I’m all for it,” Hill said. “If the state has some resources to help us out, I’m all for it, but I would rather for them not to come in.”

Apart from improving results on state test scores, the state also told Hill there were alternative methods to ensuring the schools are not taken over in September.

The district can redesign or restructure the schools to essentially start the three-year failing clock over.

Hill previously said he was considering implementing career academies, which would serve as schools within schools, to help restructure the schools.

But Hill told board members Thursday he wanted to further study the creation of an early college academy in the district instead of career academies.

In an early college academy, students enter into ninth grade after being selected for the program based on specified criteria and application.

The high school, and a partnering college, would provide extensive student support services for success in college courses.

The programs are designed for the students to graduate high school in four to five years with an associates or associate of applied science degree.

“The perks and benefits of this is that you’re targeting those students who have not been on track to go to college and you’re getting them exposed to college-level classes,” Hill said. “It also helps parents financially, because they come out of high school with that degree.”

Hill said no early college academies exist in Mississippi, but that he was on the ground floor of the development of one during his time working in North Carolina.

Hill told board members he would be working with Alcorn State University and Copiah-Lincoln Community College to hopefully make the program happen.

Only high school students would be eligible for the early college academy, and Hill said he would continue researching turnaround methods for Morgantown Middle School if that was the path the board ultimately chose.

“This is an innovative idea in Mississippi, but I think it’s just a matter of bringing everybody to the table and understanding the concept,” Hill said. “I think this is the first step of many opportunities we have to look at to see how we can restructure our schools to better serve the students.”