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When Schools Fail: The Quitman Story

By Jeffrey Hess | Published 30 Nov 2011 09:42am | comments

When Mississippi schools fail, the state steps in and declares an emergency.  But schools can also teeter just above the threshold of failure on the state’s quality rating system, never receive emergency attention, and still fail to graduate students.  As a part of our on-going series, When Schools Fail, MPB’s Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson, has the story of one rural Delta school that didn’t wait for the state to step in.

Wilborn: We are going to read the first sentence.  Read the directions first.

Student: Choose the correct verb. Circle your answer choice.

Sandra Wilborn is a third grade literacy teacher at Quitman Elementary School.  She’s taught for more than 20 years here, and went to Quitman County Public Schools as a child.  But, Wilborn says the last year has been like no other.

Wilborn: I see adults in the school working harder.  I see people in our classrooms doing what they are supposed to do.  I see parents coming out, wanting to know what they can do to help their children.

Wilborn credits the change to new leadership – leadership she says is urgent to see this chronically underperforming, predominantly black school turn things around.

Cormack: The urgency part is I think is something I try to communicate with both staff and students.

Michael Cormack is the new principal at Quitman County Elementary School, the only public elementary in the county.

Cormack: In a school that is not doing well, you see less urgent teachers, you see less urgent students.  I think as principal, I try to model urgency in my interactions.

For example, he says every minute of the day needs to be put to good use…

Cormack: An urgent line in here at Quitman County Elementary means that, in a lunch line, if students are studying multiplication, then the teacher has multiplication flash cards in hand so that the opportunity to be in line is not time wasted.

Quitman County Elementary is now a Barksdale Conversion School - one of four struggling schools in Mississippi to be adopted by the Barksdale Reading Institute.

The institute is named for Jim and Sally Barksdale's $100 million founding endowment.  Jim Barksdale is a Mississippi-native whom, over a career, was COO of Fed-Ex and CEO at AT&T and Netscape. So it may come as no surprise that in addition to a focus on benchmark reading in early grades, strong leadership is lynchpin of the Barksdale reform model.  For each adopted school, the institute recruits a new principal and retains him or her by paying an above market salary.  It's a salary the school district is no longer responsible for, but in exchange, the principal is more autonomous.

Like in war time, the community voted to relinquish some rights of oversight in exchange for an urgent response.

Barksdale: “We aren’t talking simply getting a school out of a ditch, we are talking about making great progress towards a highly successful school.”

Claiborne Barksdale is CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute.  While he says the institute is interested in a long-term partnerships with schools, Barksdale says it’s not entirely clear what the exit strategy would be if schools no longer wanted or needed the institute’s help.

Barksdale: I don’t know and I don’t want to predict. If the district asks us… says thank you very much.  Good-bye. I don’t want to predict what the continued relationship would be.

The effects of the Barksdale Reading Institute’s urgent response are showing-up in scores from the Mississippi quality rating system too. When Principal Cormack first showed up, the school had a quality rating score of 103 out of 300. After a year of reform, the rating score increased by 34 points and Cormack says he's hoping for an equally dramatic rise this year.

And then there’s what perhaps is the most surprising sign of change. Cormack said rapid reform has created more public school interest in the white community – a community that previously opted to send their children to the all most all white private school, Delta Academy.

Cormack:  I think as we improve the quality of education, we will have more folks giving us a second look and giving us an opportunity to educate their children.

Cormack says white enrolment is up and private school families are taking a greater interest in public school fundraisers. But if this signals further integration to come, some Quitman County residents say public school enrolment here may have less to do with race than it did only a generation ago and more to do with the colorless promise of performance.

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I’m Annie Gilbertson.

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