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County Schools Preserve Merit after Parent Outcry

Concerned parents packed the room Friday for the regular meeting of the Lowndes County School Board, which was to decide the fate of the popular Merit program for sixth- and seventh-graders.
The board also discussed the construction of a new vocational center, named the administrator of the year and discussed requiring uniforms at all schools.

Merit Program
The board elected to maintain the Merit program as an elective, at least for the next school year.  Both district personnel and a parent representative made presentations to the board.
The first person to speak was Assistant Superintendent Robin Ballard.  She gave an overview of the program, and presented statistics showing that Merit students are falling behind in reading skills.
“I want to address some questions that came up at the meeting we had at New Hope and some things that came up in the media,” Ballard said.  “The state mandates gifted education in grades two through six, and we are reimbursed for those teachers.  Seventh and eighth grade is not mandated, but we have been doing it for several years.  There are five seventh and eighth grade teachers, and it costs our district $226,000 and serves about 196 students for five hours a week.
“Another question that came up was what class will replace merit?” Ballard said.  “This came about when started talking about achievement.  It’s like when you grade papers and you see a question that people miss constantly, and it raises a flag.  It started raising flags when we were looking at MCT scores.  Right now we offer Merit as an elective, but it’s not really been a true elective because they get reading credit for taking the Merit class but they don’t get explicit reading instruction.  That’s the way it’s been for the 19 years I’ve been in the district.  We’re trying to get those reading objectives out of the Merit teachers’ hands and put them back in the English teachers’ hands.
“We do universal screening three times a year, in the fall, the middle and spring,” she said.  “If we look at Merit scores, we had 40 students that took the screening in December at New Hope.  In the seventh grade, three scored advanced, 32 were proficient.  There were five that scored basic.  In the eighth grade, we had three that scored advanced, 39 scored proficient and three that scored basic.  When you compare to the sixth grade…the sixth grade students still get reading instruction.  They had 10 scoring advanced and 26 scoring proficient and five that scored basic.”
Ballard said the district looked at the top 20 districts in the state to see what they offered.   Eight of the 20 offered gifted education, while none of them offered pre-AP courses.  Locally, Starkville offers pre-AP but no gifted, while Columbus offers both.  [By comparison, the Starkville School District’s Quality Distribution Index score is 155 and Columbus Municipal School District’s is 142.  Lowndes County’s is 175. – Brian Jones] Ballard quickly went over how Merit will operate in 2013-14.
“We will go back to a true elective model,” she said.  “They will receive explicit reading instruction from a reading teacher.”
Students can choose between dance, athletics, band, show choir or Merit, she said.
“Just to make it clear, we are going to keep Merit classes for the upcoming school year,” Kilgore said.
“Yes,” Ballard agreed.

Next, parent Scott Mills addressed the board.  Mills began by showing a brief, approximately two-minute video of Merit students singing the program’s praises.  Afterwards, he made some comments about Merit and about Ballard’s presentation.
“I’m glad to hear Dr. Ballard present a program that essentially saves Merit,” he said.  “As of Monday evening, it was dead.  The Merit program breaks gifted children out into small groups.  The class sizes are four to nine students.  If you take these children out of a Merit program and put them in a normal program of 25-30 students, you’re preventing them from coming out of their shell and feeling like they can contribute to the group.  The Merit program is producing students who think outside the box, and I’m glad to see that it’s rubbed off and that Dr. Ballard has thought outside the box and came back with a way to ensure this program.
“On Monday meeting, at what was an unannounced meeting, over 70 parents signed the sign-in sheet,” he said.  “If you could have that level of engagement from parents on anything…you had that type of turnout without any real type of notice.  Up until this presentation, the middle school principals took Dr. Ballard’s polls and information and made a recommendation that we not have Merit at all.  That caused a huge outpouring of public interest.
“We don’t want to replace Merit,” he said.  “We want to see growth as much as anyone else, and we acknowledge that there are some problems, but Merit is not a reading class.  There is lack of growth in those kids, but Merit was not the cause of that lack of progress.  Monday night we were told 30 percent to 40 percent of the children not showing the level of growth.  Just now she showed five out of 40 were basic, which was less than 30 or 40 percent.  These are high-achieving children.  It’s harder to show achievement in the 80th percentile than in the 40th percentile.  Maybe the metrics that need to be changed.  If I could show you a program where six or seven children showed high levels of academic achievement, doesn’t that sound like something wonderful?  Instead we focus on the three or four out of 10 that didn’t show growth, even though they are A and B students.”
Mills asked that parental input be included in changes in the district.
“I saw school uniforms on your agenda today, and that’s the first I’ve heard of that,” he said.  “I’ve heard talk about block schedules, and I’m confused about exactly what that is.”

[While I’m delighted that parents were concerned enough about the Merit program to turn out in such numbers, I think it’s sad that most of these parents will probably never darken the door of a board meeting again.  As Colin Krieger, Ron Williams and myself have written in the past, the reason that local government discounts stakeholder input and wishes is because, 99 percent of the time, nobody shows up at meetings.  When the CMSD laid off teachers, there was immense and immediate public concern…for about two months.  Then the status quo returned, and now there are more reporters than parents in the audience.  I’ll wager that, next month, few if any parents will be present at the LCSD, and the district will go right back to ignoring the people they purport to serve.
[While I realize that the county board’s meetings are at a preposterous time – 11 a.m. on Friday – I don’t really think that giving up one lunch hour or taking a few hours off from work once a month is a very high price to pay to protect your child’s interests.  Citizens trumpet “for the children!” at every opportunity, but then stay away in droves when the decisions affecting them are actually being made.  District actions won’t change without pressure. – Brian Jones]

Vocational School
Mike Mulvihill, of the Mississippi Department of Education Office of Career Education, spoke about the benefits of vocational education.
“We feel that a vocational center would be great for the school district and the local economy as a whole,” Mulvihill said.  “A lot of things have changed, and you’ve got to look at what impacts us a country right now.  Harvard University put out a paper a while back about how the recession is impacting our jobs.  A lot of the jobs that people went out and got right after college have disappeared.  But what has been really intense are middle-skill jobs: welding, construction, things like that.  There is an opportunity now for Lowndes County to take advantage of this.  You’ve got some good programs, but they’re at different high schools and so those students are limited to what’s at their individual high school.
“The benefits that we see from one school are, first, that all the students will be able to take advantage of the programs,” he said.  “At the same time students will get the opportunity to learn cross-pollinate.  For example if you’ve got a mechanical engineering program, in that program students get robotics and the computerization that goes along with it.  At the same time it also provides a central location for economic developers can come in and see everything at one time.  We can also bring parents in, because a lot of times we see parents don’t know what all is available.
“You also have the opportunity to work with higher education,” he said.  “Students these days need more than a diploma.  They need a certification, they need some community college or something along those lines.”
Mulvihill was cut off by President Bobby Barksdale, who told him he had run out of time.  [The district has a 10-minute time limit for speakers.  It is not always enforced, but due to the length of the agenda Mr. Barksdale invoked it Friday. – Brian Jones] “I think vo-tech is a wonderful thing,” said Jane Kilgore.  “Every child is not going to college.  The plans for what we’re looking it would cost around $15 million, and I think we need to prioritize our needs before we do anything.  We are very lucky to have EMCC here with us, and I think it would be awesome if we could do dual enrollment and dual credit so when students graduate they have a diploma plus a certification and is ready to join the workforce at that time.
“I represent Caledonia, and I know there’s a desperate need there for a gym and a cafeteria and other items,” Kilgore said.  “I am for vo-tech, but I think there are other options that I’d like to investigate first.”
The board took no action.

Administrator of the Year

Caledonia Elementary School Principal Roger Hill was named administrator of the year.
Hill has previously won the honor eight times.  Caledonia Elementary has been a Star school since 2005.
“I love what I do, and I do what I love,” Hill said.  “It’s not a job, it’s a joy.”

Uniforms
Superintendent Lynn Wright asked the board to approve school uniforms at all campuses, but the trustees balked at making the decision without a parent survey.
Trustee Wesley Barrett made the motion, and was seconded by Barksdale, but action was quickly stalled.
“I just don’t think I’ve heard enough input from the community,” said Bryan Clark.
“I’d like to see a survey done before we do anything,” Kilgore said.
“I’ve talked to several parents, and I’ve heard a lot more positive than I have negative,” Barrett said.  “I think it would do a lot to alleviate bullying and discipline problems.”
“We did a survey last year, and we had 30 percent against and 20 percent for and 50 percent who didn’t respond at all,” Wright said.  “Every time we send out a survey, most parents don’t respond.”
Clark made a substitute motion, seconded by Kilgore, to table the issue until a survey could be done.  Clark’s motion passed 4-1, with Barrett voting no.

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