Tuesday, January 21, 2020
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Miss. school sparks the flame of success

A story in The Hechinger Report caught our attention last week, showing how one elementary school in Mississippi, once on the “Academic Watch” list, was now ranked among the best schools in the state. The school’s principal in 2010, Andrea Pastchal-Smith, shared some tips for other schools that find themselves in a similar situation.

Student assembly celebrating: “Just do your best; show what you know.” (school website)

“The culture has changed tremendously,” Ms Pastchal-Smith, who now serves as the director of assessment and intervention for Starkville Oktibbeha School District, was quoted as saying. “We set our goal and we did not make any excuses. We got the job done working together as a team.”

The turnaround strategies can be summarized as follows:

  1. Focus on student and teacher attendance
  2. Increase time for remediation and tutoring
  3. Help students become invested in school-wide goals
  4. Praise and celebrate student success

West Elementary, formerly known as West Oktibbeha County Elementary, is located in Sturgis, in Central Mississippi, about 100 miles west of Tuscaloosa. As with many struggling schools in the country, students at these schools have little choice but to attend West Elementary for their K-5 education. The central strategies ultimately come down to details.

The school’s website shows pictures of students receiving certificates for their success, assemblies with high school students coming to the school to congratulate elementary students, and a “Muffins with Mom” event. For example, students with perfect attendance records for a certain time period get school-wide announcements, special signs on their classroom doors, and pizza parties (if an entire class has perfect attendance).

Using extrinsic rewards like this will certainly help, especially with younger students, but the “goal” of achieving an “A” on the state’s A-F report card rating system isn’t likely to be intrinsically valuable for students.

As for the third global strategy for West Elementary, allowing students to become invested in the school, that comes from offering them programming, such as music classes, healthy recess, and other activities that will not only allow the math and reading achievement that form the basis of those statewide scores to sink in but also help with the attendance. If kids like school and like what the school offers them, they’ll be in the classrooms.

I’ve always considered “perfect” attendance to reward students just for being healthy, to penalize and cast out students who tend to get sick more than the average kid, and to promote behavior that doesn’t necessarily contribute to the academic success of the school while selling out to the state’s funding formula.

Everybody gets sick and needs to take some time away from others at times. This promotes the overall safety of students (and teachers) at the school and can’t be superseded by a goal that includes test scores or state funding. That funding formula is closely tied to student attendance, which can be negative if too many students miss much more than so many days each school year, but we would like to put safety first.

The school district says, “From the very first day of kindergarten, Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District is sparking the flame of success even in our youngest of students through creative and individualized learning experiences in every classroom.”

The bottom line in any turnaround situation, as met here with success, is to find ways to increase how much the kids in a given school like going to that school. While they’re in attendance, they can be taught the state’s curriculum, especially in tested subjects that will address a deficiency in test scores, but they will also advance and seek a healthy environment within the school, focusing on student success and happiness, not just on test scores mandated by the state.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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