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In Mississippi, private money and strong principals boost struggling schools

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LAMBERT, Miss. – On a recent Friday morning in this poor, rural Mississippi Delta town, a kindergarten student gleefully sought his principal.

“Mr. Cormack,” Louis Gilliam, 6, said, flashing a smile and embracing Quitman County Elementary School’s leader. “I got a red shirt.”

Quitman County Elementary School is one of four Mississippi schools that the Barksdale Reading Institute is trying to improve. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Quitman County Elementary School is one of four Mississippi schools that the Barksdale Reading Institute is trying to improve. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

The shirt is among the methods used by the 515-student pre-K through fourth-grade school to emphasize literacy. Given to pupils who reach ambitious end-of-year literacy goals early, it is a coveted item.

Louis received his shirt slightly after the mid-point of the year, when he was able to read 180 sight-words – nearly twice the goal that most kindergarten teachers set for their students to reach by May.

“The shirts are visual role models,” said Michael Cormack, the school’s third-year principal.

Quitman County Elementary is one of four Mississippi schools participating in the Barksdale Reading Institute’s latest effort to improve literacy in the state.

The Oxford-based institute was created in 2000 by former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and his late wife Sally. They made national headlines when they put $100 million into efforts to help children in their home state learn to read before they reached third grade.

Having tried various approaches during its 13 years, the Institute’s current focus is on improving literacy by placing high-quality principals in previously low-performing schools.

Mississippi Learning

The Northeast Daily Journal is exploring the state of education in Mississippi with a year-long “State of our Schools” series.

The Hechinger Report is taking an extended look at why kids in the state so often start behind and stay behind.

Three years ago, it reached agreements with Quitman, Crenshaw Elementary in Panola County, Williams-Sullivan in Holmes County and Hazlehurst. It would find and fund top-tier principals for those schools and provide various staff and materials. The schools would provide autonomy to their new leaders.

“One night I woke up and said, let’s do this,” said Claiborne Barksdale, the brother of Jim Barksdale and current CEO at BRI. “Let’s go hire some really good principals. Let’s grab these schools by the throat and see if we can do it.”

The reason, he said, is that good leadership will ultimately attract, and keep, good teachers.

During the three years since, the four schools combined have made gains in their Quality of Distribution Index, a formula determined by how well students score on state standardized tests. On a weighted-average basis, the four schools have improved their QDI by 31 percent.

Williams-Sullivan had the second largest growth in the state during that period, including the largest math gains.

“We are not claiming victory, but we are claiming progress,” Barksdale said.

Quitman County

Driving south on Highway 3 from Marks, visitors to Lambert pass a brightly painted sign welcoming them to “A City of Hope.” Any optimism conveyed by the message is quickly dimmed by the high weeds and old, rusty, metal buildings that surround it.

Quitman County Elementary Principal Michael Cormack discusses student reading levels with Cindy Hale, the school's literacy coach. Students at the school are regularly tested and will be given individual tutoring if they are not progressing in reading. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Quitman County Elementary Principal Michael Cormack discusses student reading levels with Cindy Hale, the school’s literacy coach. Students at the school are regularly tested and will be given individual tutoring if they are not progressing in reading. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

But there is new hope coming from the town’s elementary school, which has risen in the state rankings during each of Cormack’s first two years.

Barksdale said the school was once among the “deadest schools you ever would see.” Today, it is ranked as a C school, and Cormack said the goal is to become a B this year.

His ultimate goal, is to earn an A rating and prove what is possible in the Delta. Every student at the school qualifies for federal school meal subsidies because of their low household income. Ninety-seven percent of its pupils are black.

“We know when we raise the bar of expectations and we let people know we believe our kids can compete with any kids in Mississippi, it makes a difference,” said Cormack, a Boston College graduate and former teacher, with a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers’ College. Cormack was working at Teach for America when Barksdale hired him and asked him to take the reins at Quitman.

In the fall of 2010, 38 percent of the school’s students were at the national average in reading and 30 percent were in math. By last spring, 83 percent reached that level in math and 59 percent did so in reading, according to the AIMSweb assessment, a national reading fluency exam.

First-grade teacher Cynthia Gordon, who grew up in Lambert and has taught at the school for more than 15 years, said teachers began to buy in when the school’s data showed results.

She also sees a difference in student attitudes.

“The kids here are owning their learning,” Gordon said. “They are owning their future. They know their future is to go to college.”

Cormack, Gordon and literacy coach Cindy Hale attribute the school’s gains to instructional methods that divide students into small groups to allow them to read on their current level. Thanks in part to community volunteers, the school has a reading assistant in each of its K-3 classrooms to help work with the small groups. Students can also work with older or younger grade levels as needed.

The school uses literacy-themed school assemblies to discuss books the entire student body has read. It has a school-wide goal to read 40,000 books, and constantly communicates its progress.

“Reading becomes the lens though which we view many things,” Cormack said.

Hazlehurst

The community in rural Hazlehurst, a small town an hour south of Jackson, was skeptical when the Barksdale Reading Institute first signed a contract to help turn around Hazlehurst Elementary School.

Louis Gilliam, 6, prepares for his turn in a Quitman County Elementary kindergarten spelling competition. Gilliam is one of several kindergarten students who has already met the grade's end of year reading goal, halfway through the school year. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Louis Gilliam, 6, prepares for his turn in a Quitman County Elementary kindergarten spelling competition. Gilliam is one of several kindergarten students who has already met the grade’s end of year reading goal, halfway through the school year. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

The agreement came shortly after the state had taken over the district and asked for BRI’s assistance.

“In the beginning, parents just didn’t trust BRI being in their community,” said Kim Langston, one of two principals at the school. “They’d gone through a lot already, losing the district over to the state.”

For years, the school had struggled to make gains in test scores. In the 2008-09 school year, only 11 percent of sixth-graders scored proficient or advanced in math. In the 2010-11 school year, fewer than 14 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in reading.

“Hazlehurst is a real challenge,” Barksdale said. “It is a very complex organization.”

The school, which serves more than 1,100 children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has gone through extensive changes. There have been three middle school principals in less than three years. The two current principals split the grade levels, and both principals stepped into their new roles only in the past year.

They have wasted no time in improvement efforts, immediately restructuring the layout of the school. They strategically clustered the same grades together, instead of stringing classrooms of the same grade along each hallway, so teachers could simply step outside of their room and across the hallway to share teaching strategies. They moved the pre-K classrooms away from the upper grades, to a separate building near the community’s Head Start facility.

The middle-school grades restructured English language arts, making room for a basic reading class taught by the most effective and highly trained teachers to help catch up students not reading on grade level.

“A lot of times when you’re changing, you have to be flexible,” said Wells. “Sometimes if the vision is not shared or if things are not getting done as they need to be, then you just have to, as a turnaround school, say ‘this is not working, let’s do something different.’”

The principals say that perhaps the biggest benefit of BRI’s involvement is the access to Teach For America teachers, who have filled several vacant positions that Wells says wouldn’t have attracted many, if any, applicants.

“One of the best things that could have happened with BRI coming, was the exposure of teachers that we have,” Wells said. “People perceived it to be a failing school, and said, ‘I don’t want to go teach there.’ You have good people here that are making a difference.”

Scores have been improving, slowly but surely.

Hazlehurst’s QDI rating has improved by 25 points in three years. In the 2010-11 school year, only 24 percent of kids were scoring the national average in AIMSWeb math assessments. One year later, that number had doubled.

And the community has started embracing the many changes as well.

“They’re so much more receptive this year,” Wells said. “We have the numbers and the facts in front of us to support what we’re saying. I think they’re buying in to what we’re trying to do.”

Past attempts

Initially, the Barksdale Reading Institute used literacy coaches to visit schools one day a week to help teachers improve their instruction. The program began with 60 schools, and while they saw some improvement, it was not as much as desired.

So BRI placed those coaches, who had master’s degrees in reading instruction, directly into classrooms five days a week.

The impact was great. So was the cost.

“The children were benefiting and getting significantly higher test scores,” Barksdale said.

“But the problem was, it was not scalable because we were spending about $50,000 per child per year, and we said, ‘We can send them to Harvard for that.’”

The next phase put one coach full-time at each school to advise teachers. Still not quite seeing the results he wanted, Barksdale shifted his focus to school leadership.

He doesn’t yet know what is next.

“What I think we’ve demonstrated here is this is what it takes,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it is easy, and there aren’t a lot of these great principals out there.

“What we have to do if we’re really going to transform Mississippi’s education system is get in the business of getting really bright people into education, finding the leaders, grooming them, and that is a long, difficult process. We all wish there were a quick fix. I don’t think there is.”

This story originally appeared in the Northeast Daily Journal.

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