Superintendent, deputy discuss ACT scores

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, September 19, 2017

NATCHEZ — Natchez-Adams School District representatives said they have a plan to raise the junior class’ average ACT score, which currently ranks almost 3 points behind the state average.

Superintendent Fred Butcher said he plans to focus on reading and comprehension, where students had an ACT average score of 14.5.

“Saying we’re going to do a workshop here or there — that’s just putting a Band-Aid on it,” Butcher said. “We have to go back to our lower grades — to our junior high areas — and look at doing something that is going to sustain their reading comprehension.”

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It starts in middle schools, where Butcher said he had seen an academic disconnect.

“Somehow in education, we started working from the top down,” Butcher said. “My philosophy is you have to work from the bottom up. Then, you’re going to build a culture and have a sound foundation to stand on.”

To address the divide between middle and high school, the board has hired new administrators and retooled class schedules.

The new block schedules, Butcher said, will spend more time on core areas such as reading and math.

The Mississippi Department of Education requires any high school junior with an ACT score of 15 to 18 to attend additional literacy and mathematics courses.

These courses, Deputy Superintendent Zandra McDonald said, are designed by the Southern Regional Education Board to aid students with core skills.

Last summer, teachers from the district were trained in the format prescribed by the SREB.

This is the first semester those classes are being implemented.

“It’s a class that ensures that students are getting both reading and writing,” McDonald said. “In the past, we’ve had students getting either reading or writing.”

The literacy course instead teaches the skills concurrently and with an emphasis on application.

The mathematics course, she said, similarly focuses on the process of solving problems, not simply formulas.

“It goes beyond mere computation,” McDonald said. “Students actually have to apply those mathematical concepts to that task.”

These new methods of learning are  particularly helpful for veteran teachers, Butcher said, who have taught one way their entire career.

“They have been teaching language in isolation,” Butcher said. “Subject, verbs, that kind of thing. The new concept is to teach them all together.”

During the past 18 months, McDonald said, the district has worked to align its curriculum to state standards and educate teachers on what’s expected of them and their students.

“You see a comprehensive effort across the district,” McDonald said. “It’s not middle school just focusing on middle school. It’s ‘How do I prepare students to go to the next level?’”

The focus on preparation for future classes, she said, is called vertical alignment. This concept means not simply teaching to prepare for state and local testing but to prepare for future classes.

“A third-grade teacher is meeting with a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher to know what students must know and be able to do when they go to the next level,” McDonald said. “You see those kinds of conversations being held across the district.”

Butcher said an academic team the board created is also working to train teachers, especially new hires.

The academic team comprises five people who work directly with teachers, walking them through the skills needed to succeed in Natchez.

This guidance can include showing young teachers how to work well with students and parents, Butcher said.

The academic team was used last year when the district hired 16 substitutes as full-time teachers.

“We know going in, those are people that need a lot of help,” Butcher said. “With the academic team, we know we have people in place that can help those persons.”

Butcher said he hopes these changes will build the foundation for better scores, ACT and otherwise.

With teachers more aware of what is expected of them and their pupils and students getting comprehension skills early in their education, he said he hopes to see the numbers rise.

“We’re making progress,” Butcher said. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re making progress.”