Two years ago, 158 Mississippi schools were at risk of failing. West Lowndes Elementary was one of them. As Principal Robert Sanders stared at the 2007-2008 state test scores, he knew the odds were stacked against his students. He also knew he wasn’t going to give up. And so he set about an ambitious plan to revamp not only a school but a community.
In the process, he managed to do what many people said was impossible: He took a school at risk of failing and catapulted it to the ranks of the high-performing, within 24 months.
He is humble, almost matter-of-fact about his school’s success, but a fleeting smirk says it all — he’s proud of what they have accomplished, as any principal would be.
The Mississippi Department of Education accountability rankings have not been particularly kind to the Lowndes County or Columbus city schools. District-wide, the county school system was high-performing in 2010-2011, but two of the district’s schools were placed on academic watch status and two ranked low-performing.
The Columbus Municipal School District is on academic watch, as are five of its seven schools.
But at West Lowndes Elementary, the future is looking brighter than it has in a long time. There’s a new attitude, a new atmosphere and a renewed focus. Every step has been a deliberate move toward excellence.
“Our expectations have changed,” Sanders says. “We expect great things out of our kids.”
A reading renaissance
It’s about an hour before dismissal Friday afternoon, but the halls are eerily quiet for a school of 221 kindergarten through fifth-graders. As Sanders passes a classroom, an enthusiastically off-key chorus of “Happy Birthday” rings out, and he smiles.
He stops in the library, where librarian Minnie Williams sifts through a pile of bulletin board materials promoting the joys of reading. At the checkout counter, several students wait with armloads of books to take home for the weekend.
Sanders stops to chat with second-graders Dontavious Logan and Deidra Jefferson. Logan excitedly shows off a book about wolves; Jefferson has chosen a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and soon, Sanders is surrounded by children wanting to share their newfound treasures.
It wasn’t always like this.
After analyzing the state test scores, Sanders and his staff saw an immediate place they could improve — reading comprehension. They issued a survey asking students what types of books they wanted to read. Then they filled the library with those types of books. Instead of assigning books, they gave students the flexibility to choose their own books. And suddenly, even reluctant readers were engaged.
They implemented an Accelerated Reader and Reading Renaissance program and offered individual, class and grade-level incentives. They started a reading log for each child, asking them to fill in the times they read, and they noticed something interesting — parents seemed to be reading more with the children, too. And the children were reading to their younger siblings.
Knowing he needed the parents to be more involved, Sanders developed creative strategies to get them to come to parent-teacher meetings. He began issuing certificates and offering incentives to parents who became actively involved. He and the teachers emphasized the importance of a joint partnership between parents and the school.
He flung open the school doors and invited the parents to visit, observe, talk, share. PTO meetings evolved from sparse attendance to standing room only.
“We let parents know, ‘We want you here. We need you here. Your child needs you here,'” he says.
He revamped the tutoring program, narrowing its focus from overall group tutoring on a particular subject to targeted, one-on-one or small group tutoring.
“Anywhere we could find 15 to 20 minutes to work with a student, we’d pull them aside and do it,” Sanders says.
Working on a hunch, he decided to screen every student for giftedness, and he learned something shocking — they had been severely underestimating the amount of gifted students at West Lowndes. Nearly 200 percent more students should have been enrolled in the school’s gifted program.
But Sanders knew more could be done. And he knew exactly where he needed to focus next.
The ‘big push’
Sanders pauses, framing his words carefully as he tries to explain the atmosphere he found at West Lowndes when he took the helm seven years ago.
“When I got here, there was a mindset,” he says, his voice trailing.
Always looking toward the positive, he declines to go into detail about the past. He and his staff began a “big push” to do well, he says. Nothing less than their best was acceptable.
As he lost teachers due to natural attrition, he made sure to replace them with the best and brightest he could find. He grilled the candidates in interviews, seeking strong reading and math teachers.
“We were looking for the best,” he says. “And that has made a world of difference.”
He looked for ways to streamline routines, eradicating pockets of wasted time, which had the unexpected bonus of eliminating a lot of discipline issues. He encouraged the use of “best practices” in teacher planning. He evaluated programs and staff, asking if they were truly effective or just going through the motions.
And when he had closed all the loops inside the school, he began to look for outside assistance. When he found what he was seeking — a school with similar demographics to West Lowndes — he and several staff members took a field trip to Rolling Fork, where they spent a day at South Delta Elementary School in Sharkey County.
In 2009, while West Lowndes was at risk of failing, South Delta ranked high-performing. They ranked high-performing the following year as well. And this wasn’t a wealthy school. This was a small elementary school in the heart of the impoverished Mississippi Delta.
“That really, really helped,” Sanders says. “We saw a school that looked like ours, doing well.”
And what he had believed from the beginning was confirmed: The students at West Lowndes had a fighting chance.
These days, Sanders is fielding his share of phone calls from other principals who want to know the same things he wanted to know — can it be done, and, more crucially, how do you do it? How do you turn around a school that seems destined for failure?
Officials from Wilson Elementary School in Noxubee County recently visited. He’s been talking with officials at Kemper County Elementary School as well.
It all came down to teamwork, says librarian Minnie Williams. She’s been at West Lowndes 28 years, and she’s seen highs and lows. Right now, everyone at the school is riding a high, continuing to strive for success.
“We’re all working together for a common goal,” she says. “There’s more teamwork; we’re working more together to get our kids where they need to be. Everybody just helps each other. We were struggling for so long, but once we got going, we headed in the same direction, following (Sanders’) footsteps. It makes me feel good.”
Fourth-grade reading teacher Deidra Rice said it took a lot of tough love to get her students to fall in love with reading — and learning. The key, she says, was taking it in small chunks at a time, knowing it would all come together.
At the end of the day, they’re all a family, explains Tutoring Assessment Coordinator Peggy Everette, who also works at West Lowndes Middle School, helping teachers understand the testing data.
She arrived four years ago to a school where everyone seemed “off to themselves,” fighting an uphill battle alone. Things are different now, she says. Sanders has high expectations, and everyone works together to meet those expectations.
So will West Lowndes Elementary join Caledonia Elementary as the district’s second star school when the state accountability rankings are released this fall?
“We definitely expect to see growth,” Sanders says, smiling. “Our goal is to become a star school. That’s definitely our goal. And we know it’s going to happen.”
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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