Starkville High School Principal David Baggett officially began his tenure this month by tinkering with the school’s master class schedules last week, one of many subtle changes the former Ocean Springs educator hopes will improve student and teacher efficiency.
Concise, ground-up reformations like maximizing students’ and teachers’ time are needed if Starkville School District is to improve its graduation rates.
Baggett’s hire was announced in April at an important time for the school district. Next year, state-mandated consolidation means it will absorb Oktibbeha County School District students and teachers. While county elementary students will remain at campuses outside Starkville, the city’s high school will serve all county-wide students.
Improving the district’s graduation rate, Baggett said, is the most pressing and important challenge he faces before and after the merger. Starkville’s four-year graduation rate during the 2012-2013 academic year was 66.6 percent, meaning for every two students that graduated, another did not. It’s five-year rate, however, measured higher at 76.3 percent. Comparatively, OCSD’s 2012-2013 four-year rate was 67.2 percent, while its five-year figure dropped to 64.6.
School stakeholders praised Baggett’s hire this spring, comparing the new addition to hitting a home run in baseball. Under his eight-year stint as Ocean Springs High School principal, the school received an A designation from the Mississippi Department of Education and won 16 state athletic championship. It recorded a 221 Quality Distribution Index score — SHS earned a 157 — and an 86 percent graduation rate in the 2012-2013 academic year.
The Dispatch sat down with Baggett last week as he continued transitioning into his new position.
What potential do you see in Starkville School District?
“To be successful, you have to have three key things: good instructors that have good content knowledge that love working with kids, good students that know the importance of education and are willing to work and advance themselves and good parental support and community support for your education systems. When you have those things in place and you have good leadership that makes sure all the tools are there for the kids and teachers to be successful, you can accomplish anything. Starkville has all of those qualities.”
Obviously, you experienced a lot of success in Ocean Springs. What was your secret that consistently produced A grades and high graduation rates?
“I was fortunate to have the opportunity to build upon those same qualities in Ocean Springs. We had a great staff and could give them what they needed to be successful, help kids understand the importance of a good education and put them in a scenario where they could be successful. 2I expect to do the same thing here in Starkville.
“Right now, we’re losing about one out of every three kids in terms of the graduation rate, and that is absolutely unacceptable. Even where I came from, I reiterated to my staff that if we’re losing just one, that’s unacceptable. We’re not going to sit and be satisfied losing children. Our goal is to get kids educated so they can chase their dreams and aspirations, whether that’s going straight into the workforce, going into the military or going off for secondary education. No matter where they want to go, our job is to get them ready for that next step.”
Community involvement is crucial for a school system’s success, whether it is going through consolidation or not. How do you cultivate better relationships with county constituents?
“You have to make sure you educate parents and the overall community to what’s happening with our school system and what they can do to make their own children and the schools themselves successful. Parents first and foremost have to be involved with their kids’ education so they understand the ramifications if they do drop out. We also have to have better two-way communication. That’s not always fun in my role, but good leaders have to listen to both the good and bad when making informed decisions.
“Right this minute, we have to go ahead and get everyone collaborating and working together for the common good of our students. That’s the bottom line. If we sell our kids short now, it’s going to come back and haunt us later. I think I’ve come in at the perfect time with consolidation approaching. It’s going to be important to embrace the county folks and have the county embrace us. We need to meld into one Yellow jacket. Whatever we do, we have to make our decisions based on what is best for our kids. I think most of us can agree to find common ground and do that because if we’re not already, then we’re not looking out for what’s best for this city, county state and country.”
What other goals do you have for SHS?
“My assistants and I will get knee-deep in curriculum. For example, we’re traveling to a work session on new math tests that are coming out. I think it’s important that the leaders have an understanding about what the teachers are dealing with so we can make good, informed decisions on how to help. I believe in practicing what I preach, so I’ll be in the trenches with them.
“I’m also very excited about our growing partnership with East Mississippi Community College. Look for us to add duel credit, duel enrollment opportunities. It’s a no-brainer to give kids the opportunity to earn college-level credits on your own campus. One of the things I intend to do is have a crusade closer to registration times to inform parents so they and their children can make better decisions about their future. The more options we have for our kids, the better it’s going to be.
Another bright spot at Ocean Springs High School was its athletics. How does participation in extracurricular activities tie into a child’s ability as a student?
“Everywhere I’ve ever been, I’ve always preached the three As: academics, arts and athletics. Kids get intangibles from these areas, like teamwork, how to win and even how to lose — great life lessons. There is so much more to education than learning your A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s. Extracurricular activities go hand-in-hand with traditional education. If a kid in the band has a solid work ethic there, it will carry over to the classroom. They definitely can feed each other. That’s another one of the great things about this community, they rally around and support arts and athletics. We want that to continue so we can build all of our programs.”
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch