Local educator to MDE: State needs to support goals

Published 1:00 am Saturday, September 3, 2016

NATCHEZ — Responding to one of the Mississippi Board of Education’s six outlined goals, a Natchez-Adams School District official said it is time for the state to put its money where its mouth is.

The Mississippi Department of Education hosted one of seven public meetings Thursday at the Steckler Multi-purpose Center to gather input on the state’s education plan in response to the latest federal program, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the law replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Nathan Oakley, executive director for MDE’s elementary education and reading staff, discussed the board’s goals. The goals are:

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4More students showing growth on state tests

4Every student graduates ready for either college or a career

4Early childhood education access is provided to every student

4Every school has effective teachers and leaders

4Data usage is improved to increase student outcomes

4Every school district is rated C or higher

ESSA aims to scale back the hands-on federal law in education found in the NCLB legislation. The areas the new law aims to address include accountability and school quality; measures of student success; school and district report cards; teacher and leader quality; and school improving strategies.

NASD Interim Deputy Superintendent Zandra McDonald said the program was a great opportunity for the district to voice its concerns.

“MDE has all of these plans, but they are no good without feedback from the people who are in the trenches,” she said. “So I think it is awesome they are soliciting opinions.”

McDonald said the state needs to work out a better support system for districts.

“Their goal about every district being rated C or better, they need to come up with a plan to address low-performing districts,” she said. “Low-performing districts need support.”

MDE representatives put together Thursday several roundtable discussion groups, asking each the same questions.

Questions included what an effective teacher or school leader looks like, what student data helps and what data might be needed and how could MDE support low-performing schools.

Natchez High School Principal Tony Fields said some teachers are still struggling with outdated ideas.

“Gone are the days of a teacher standing up in front of a chalk board for 50 minutes, a full block, just lecturing,” he said. “Many still think that is the best practice, when really it is not.”

For a school leader, times have also changed, Fields said.

“You have to be willing to empower others,” he said. “People in your buildings have strengths, you just have to find what those strengths are and where there are weaknesses. Everybody has weaknesses, and you teach them and coach them up.”

Considering how the state should support low-performing schools, Fields said he approves of the academic coaches provided on the elementary level. However, when it comes to the secondary level, Fields said not as much support is provided.

“With my encounters with MDE while I was working on the elementary level, they were very supportive,” Fields said. “What I’ve seen on the secondary level — this is my second year at Natchez High School — when MDE says they are coming it is like, ‘Oh my God.’ Like it’s a bad thing.”

McLaurin Elementary School assistant principal Elizabeth Weeks said the state should be more proactive. The department of education should use data like the schools do for children and catch issues before they became real problems, she said.

“Instead of basically saying, ‘Well, wait until your father comes home’ kind of thing, you could get it done ahead of time,” Weeks said.

Fields said better access to technology could be a real game changer. Assistant principals, Rachel Simmons agreed.

Simmons said she relocated to Natchez from a school system in Ruston, La., which has developed a program that provided each student with a computing device the children could take home.

“We went from a D to almost an A in four years implementing that system,” she said. “The poverty rate is the same, but the access to resources like technology was incredible.”

Access to technology could also help teachers, particularly in smaller districts, Weeks said. She said one thing McLaurin has done is share important documents like lesson plans online, which can help other teachers going through the planning process.

“But if you are the only chemistry teacher in a district, you are pretty much on an island,” Weeks said. “It would be nice if they could share information with teachers from around the state through MDE.”

Oakley said he thought the discussion in the room was informative and would help the state in forming its plan.

“I was really pleased with the turnout,” he said. “We had teachers, administrators, school board members, parents and business leaders. It was a good cross section — exactly what we wanted.”