When Columbus schools reconvene in August, Sale Elementary International Studies Magnet School will be 80 years lighter on experience.
Two teachers who have been with the school since 1970, two years after it was built, are calling it a career. Marya Ezelle, who teaches first grade, and Mary Cunningham, a second-grade teacher, decided to retire.
Their presence will be noticeably absent.
“I have never seen two women who were more dedicated to the success of their students,” said Sale Principal Nancy Bragg. “Ms. Ezelle and Ms. Cunningham represent the pillars of the school.”
Columbus Municipal School Superintendent Dr. Del Phillips said the teachers” impact cannot be quantified, and “one can only imagine the difference these teachers have made in the lives of their students.”
Untold hundreds of Columbus students have sat in Ezelle”s and Cunningham”s classes unaware of the changes surrounding them. But the teachers have watched the landscape of education grow and evolve from lecture-style teaching, with all eyes to the front of the class, to differentiated instruction, which instructs each student at his or her readiness level.
“The first year I taught I had 37 first-graders,” recalls Ezelle. “We taught ”Sally, Dick and Jane.” We taught in groups in reading, but we didn”t differentiate in other instruction.”
The number of students allowed by state law in a one-teacher classroom is now capped at 27.
Cunningham also started at Sale with approximately 30 students in her class. The biggest change in instruction has been the integration of computers, she said. Specialized computer software helps tailor instruction to individual students.
The trend toward differentiated instruction in Columbus began in the 1980s as the Mississippi Department of Education set new benchmarks for breaking subjects into skills. Performance on state tests became a priority around the same time, Ezelle remembered.
To meet the needs of individual students, teachers at Sale test their students at the beginning of each year, and again at several points throughout the year, to determine which skills need the most attention. If specialized classroom instruction to meet those needs isn”t enough, Sale provides Falcons Are Meeting Expectations — simply called FAME — time, during which students at similar levels gather in specific classrooms to receive more specified instruction.
Some practices which seem timeless have come into vogue during Cunningham”s and Ezelle”s time. Ezelle can”t remember if she assigned homework in her first few years of teaching at Sale, but now “That”s the rule at this school,” said Cunningham.
“Now we give homework in the first grade and we give a lot of it,” said Ezelle. “I usually give a math and a reading assignment.”
Both teachers spent just a few years at other district schools before beginning their tenures at Sale. Ezelle taught for four years at Fairview Elementary and Cunningham for two years at Mitchell Elementary.
Their perspectives on Columbus schools” place in Mississippi education and Mississippi schools” place in the national picture are gleaned from the progress of transfer students.
“It makes me so mad to hear people talk (critically) about Mississippi schools because our kids work so hard,” said Ezelle. “We”ve got kids from other states so far behind us it”s not even funny. We”ve gotten kids from Chicago and other Northern states not near doing the kinds of things we”re doing. And we”ve gotten kids from other places in Mississippi who aren”t doing what we”re doing.”
Ezelle says Sale students can compete academically with any in the state, including private school students. However, a difference can be seen in the at-home support students receive.
Home life makes a difference
“When I first started teaching and had 37 kids in a room, I didn”t have a lot of discipline problems because moms were at home raising their kids,” said Ezelle. “Today it takes everybody in the house to earn a living so kids sometimes raise themselves. Moms do the best they can but (the children) are just not getting the guidance.”
Ezelle and Cunningham don”t think parents are lazy or unconcerned, but simply have less time to devote to after-school education. Therefore, both teachers make themselves as available as possible to parents.
That means sending their personal phone numbers home with their students, which leads to grandmothers calling and asking for quick math-refresher lessons. And they proactively call parents to let them know if their children are succeeding or falling behind in class, which leads to confusion on the parents” behalf when they get a call explaining their child has done everything right.
Another difference between public and private schools, they say, is parental contributions. With the state struggling to find money, public schools have suffered wave after wave of budget cuts.
“I have a friend who taught in private schools. All she has to say is ”I need this.” and the parents buy it,” said Ezelle. “Our parents can”t afford to buy everything, so I buy what I need out of my pocket. One year I spent over $3,000. But if my kids need something, they”re going to get it.”
Cunningham and Ezelle say the budget crunch isn”t a reflection on the district or school administrators. On the contrary, they say Bragg and Phillips are both “great money managers.” But they see bigger problems in the near future for public schools. Thus, making this year a good time to step away, among other reasons.
The decision to retire
“I need to spend some time with my family,” said Cunningham. “My husband, Eddie Cunningham, retires soon from Omnova.”
Ezelle had planned to stay one more year to be around when Sale achieves International Baccalaureate certification, but with elementary schools adding fifth grade and more change on the horizon, it was “time to let someone young and feisty get in there.”
Both teachers may volunteer their time in the future because the faculty at Sale is like family to them.
Looking back over their time with Columbus schools, both teachers remember clearly how they wound up at Sale.
“I was at Mitchell and we were integrating the schools,” recalls Cunningham. “(The teachers) had to go to Central Office and they had us all in this little room. We had to pull a number as we walked into the door. Whatever number you pulled was your school.”
Ezelle was called into her principal”s office at Fairview with one other teacher. Both wanted to remain at Fairview so the principal had both of them guess what number she had in mind.
“I guessed a number and I lost, but I really won in the long run,” she said.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.