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Achievements highlighted for magnet school; program set to expand by two grade levels

NATCHEZ Student achievement at Robert Lewis Magnet School was applauded Thursday afternoon as the school’s principal shared data showing positive academic growth and announcing the school would expand by two grade levels next school year.

RLMS Principal Zandra McDonald presented an update to the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees on the status of the newest program in the district, which houses 126 sixth-grade students at the former Robert Lewis Middle School.

Along with reviewing the school’s overall operating procedures and goals, McDonald presented student scores from a variety of benchmark assessments.

In December, 86 percent of the 126 RLMS students scored proficient and above on the language arts benchmark assessment administered by the district. In comparison, 49 percent of the 161 sixth-grade students at Morgantown Middle School scored proficient and above.

In December, 39 percent of the 126 students at RLMS scored proficient and above on the math benchmark assessment. In comparison, five percent of the 161 sixth-grade students at Morgantown Middle School scored proficient and above.

The scores, McDonald clarified, are raw data from the assessments, which include material the students had not yet been taught in the classroom. Two scores are taken from the assessments — a raw score taking into account material not yet taught and a calculated score that marks only the material the students have been taught. The calculated score is what a student takes home on their report card.

Superintendent Frederick Hill said nearly one third of the test included information students had already been taught.

“If students are scoring 39 percent and only being taught a third of the curriculum, that’s not a bad number,” Hill said.

The benchmark assessments are given at the end of each nine weeks and are intended to simulate what a student will score on the annual state test, Mississippi Curriculum Test 2.

When board members asked McDonald how the difference from scores at the magnet school and Morgantown could be explained, the first-year principal credited the standard of success implemented by the teachers and administrators.

“We’ve established a culture of high expectations, and there are several characteristics of that in place, such as a culture of personalization,” McDonald said. “All children are known by everyone in the building, and we review individual student data to personalize instruction.

“I can tell you what Xavier scored and how well he is with percentages on word problems, while Mr. (Eric) Smith, our math teacher, can tell you item analysis from the classroom.”

McDonald said the 95-percent attendance requirement all students and parents agreed to maintain before enrolling also plays a factor in the scores.

“We have students approaching going below that 95-percent mark, and we already have parent conferences set up,” McDonald said. “I need them to understand that I need our students here in order to succeed.”

Board member Benny Wright asked McDonald to clarify the school’s admission and selection process, saying a feeling around the community was the school only accepted students with good grades.

Admission to the school last year was offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and McDonald said all students who applied, regardless of academic or disciplinary infractions, were accepted.

“We do not have an elite school,” McDonald said. “It was open enrollment, so we had kids who came in with D’s and F’s and others who came in with all A’s.

“All students who applied were accepted.”

Board and audience members applauded McDonald’s presentation of the student’s academic achievements.

The positive results at the school, McDonald said, made the decision to expand two grades next school year an easy one.

For the second year, the program will be open to sixth-grade through eighth-grade students, with the targeted number for enrollment in each grade level being 125 students.

The same application and selection process will apply for all grades, with current sixth-grade students having first preference for the seventh grade slots.

If more than 125 students apply for each grade level, a lottery will be offered to fill the available slots.

An increase in staff will be required for the expansion, but Hill said employees would be shifted from positions at other district schools to fill those openings.

“If you have fewer students at Morgantown, than those teachers can be relocated to the magnet school,” Hill said. “It will all balance out.”

Hill said the triumphs of the magnet school helps assure him the district is on the right path to success.

“One of the things I’ve been pushing for is the development of smaller learning communities and that’s what Robert Lewis is,” Hill said. “The students are benefiting from the instruction, and I think it’s the right thing for our district.”