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Mississippi is one of the 45 states that has adopted the education standards known as Common Core. For the first time, students across the county will have the same education goals in math and English.

In August, every teacher in Mississippi will teach Common Core. The Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader visited rural Forrest County to see what’s changing, and how teachers and students are handling the shift to new standards. You can hear her report below.

At Dixie Attendance Center, an elementary and middle school about 10 minutes south of Hattiesburg, the sixth graders in Jennifer Collins’s reading class are reading The Myth of Cronus, a story about a god who eats his children to make sure he will always stay in power.

In one corner of the room, four students discuss the idea of ‘fate.’

Mississippi Common Core standards
Sixth grade students at Dixie Attendance Center discuss myths during a group activity. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

 “So every time Rhea gave birth, he took the newborn god and swallowed it,” said one student, as she carefully read an excerpt of the story.

Another student nodded. “When Cronus swallowed his kids, that was like the idea of fate and overwhelming power…the kids couldn’t have any choice,” he said.

A third student quickly interrupted. “They couldn’t escape. They’re just like newborns.”

Discussions like this have become more common at Dixie since 2012, when the school began to phase in the new Common Core standards with its youngest students. This year, every teacher is teaching the new standards, which lay out what students are expected to learn from kindergarten through 12th grade. In math, students have to learn more than one way to solve the same problem, and they must explain their thinking. In reading, students are expected to read more nonfiction and use evidence to back up verbal and written responses. The standards also emphasize speaking and listening.

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Reading teacher Jennifer Collins said it’s led to a big shift in her teaching. “I really had to do a lot of letting go. Instead of being the leader of discussions, I was the facilitator,” she said.

Instead of using handouts and games to teach her mythology unit, Collins has her students discuss myths, work in groups, and write responses using evidence from the stories.

“They’re getting out of the habit of taking multiple choice tests,” Collins said.  “They’re getting out of the habit of reading a story and just answering the five questions at the end. They’re getting more into the habit of analyzing, which was new to them. They didn’t know how to do that.”
Although many teachers and students here have embraced the new standards, the transition has been a heavy lift. Veteran teachers have thrown out years of lesson plans. Some districts have resorted to pricey consultants to develop plans for them.

Assistant superintendent of Forrest County Schools, Jennifer Ward, says her district has adopted materials from New York to help with the transition. “We didn’t want them to recreate the wheel so to speak, so we gave them those resources and said, ‘Here, here it is. If you can use it and adapt it, then by all means do that.’”

Mississippi Common Core standards
Jennifer Collins, a sixth grade reading teacher at Dixie Attendance Center, prepares for a morning lesson. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Although some districts in Mississippi began the transition to Common Core in 2011, many schools have postponed the switch because kids will still be tested on the old standards this spring. Older students still need to pass those exams to graduate. Jennifer Ward says those are the students who have struggled the most with Common Core.

“The younger children who have started kindergarten or first grade with Common Core seem to have grasped the concepts much easier than students who have been in the educational journey for several years and are having to now make that shift,” Ward said. “I think it’s much more difficult for them. “

Across the state, it has also been difficult for parents to get on board. Many are concerned that their children will struggle with the more challenging standards. Forrest County superintendent Brian Freeman says the district has held several meetings and has an open door policy so parents can visit classrooms and see what the changes look like. But he says the quick transition has been tough for everybody.

“The bottom line is, we want kids to succeed,” Freeman said. “But I think this would have been a great generational change that you bring in with a group of kindergarteners and progress through the process. The process for educators would have been easier.”

Next year, schools across the state will fully roll out the new standards in reading and math classes. Students will take new, computerized Common Core tests in 2015.

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