October 14, 2020 10:26:14 AM
The principals for Starkville High and Armstrong Junior High schools presented proposed restructuring plans at the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District board meeting Tuesday night, after SHS Principal Howard Savage reported the district's graduation rate fell below 85 percent in 2019.
"Starkville High School for the first time had under 85 percent graduation rate," Savage said. "Based on the state requirement, we had to come up with a restructuring plan on how (we are) going to rectify this."
His proposal included looking at four areas to reform: behavior, course performance, attendance and the school's programs for students with disabilities.
For the latter two, he said administrators plan to enforce correct documentation on attendance records and individualized education plans (I.E.P.s) for students with disabilities. Savage also outlined a plan to correct poor student behavior, which included identifying 65 students with multiple behavior infractions and having them work with counselors and administrators to address what's causing those behavioral problems.
But the "biggie" was a suggestion to completely restructure the school grading system in a plan to improve course performance, Savage said.
Currently, 50 percent of SHS students' grades are based on tests, while 30 percent is based on daily grades and 20 percent is based on nine-week exam grades -- a system which Savage said is "behind the times" and which other school districts are moving away from.
He proposed making daily grades worth 50 percent of a student's overall grade, while tests and nine-week exams would each be worth 25 percent.
"What's going on in the daily operation of the school, students must understand that what they do each day in the classroom is vital and is important," he said. "... Nine-weeks exam is going to be indicative of how well that student pretty much did as it relates to that nine weeks, but letting students know that you have to come to school every day -- work in the classrooms -- is the most important thing that is going to help us, in my opinion, curb some of our course performance issues."
Armstrong Principal Ra'Mon Forbes, who presented his own similar restructuring plan since he said the junior high school "feeds into" the high school, said his school would follow whatever the high school did in terms of grading configurations.
Both Savage and Forbes said changing the grades to put more focus on daily work in the classroom will motivate students to put in continuous effort. Right now, because the district allows students the opportunity to retake tests when they perform poorly, some of them rely on those retakes.
"That's one challenge we're having with students," Forbes said. "They know they have the retest. They know they have the second chance. ... We want the students to understand, 'OK, the first time we need to be prepared.'"
He pointed out motivating students to put in that work in the classroom daily will also help teachers identify students who are actually struggling to understand material.
"Students are smart," Savage said. "Very smart. Smarter than us, to be honest. So if I'm a student and I know that my test grade is worth 50 percent, and I know I can reteach and retest, why would I put forth maximum effort? I won't have to."
At the same time, he said, the new grading configuration would help alleviate the pressure on students who have testing anxiety.
"I really feel like that would be a game-changer for our students and teachers," he said.
During Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent Eddie Peasant also addressed ongoing issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of the semester, district administrators offered parents the option of having their students learn virtually, sending their students to school for traditional in-person learning or, in the case of middle school students and older, having a hybrid system where the students could attend school a certain number of days and do virtual learning the rest of the week.
However, difficulties with everything from student participation to internet connectivity and device issues resulted in the district ditching the hybrid structure by Oct. 5, and Peasant said "every Monday" more and more students are coming back to classrooms for in-person traditional learning.
Currently, Peasant told The Dispatch, about 70 percent of the district's elementary school students and 55 to 60 percent of older students are commuting to and from campus for traditional learning.
"They've both increased probably by about 10 percent (since the beginning of the year)," Peasant said.
Peasant and board members agreed district administrators are being "extremely accommodating" to parents who found virtual learning more difficult than they anticipated, since initially the district had said elementary students could not switch learning options until after the first nine weeks and older students not until the second semester. The increasing number of in-person students is also causing faculty and staff to have to restructure classrooms to enforce social distancing.
Peasant said administrators will continue to monitor the situation and make sure students are all staying safe.
He and his staff also hope virtual learning will become easier for students and teachers in the coming weeks because on Tuesday, the district received a shipment of 4,200 Chromebooks paid for by part of the district's CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act money.
Leanne Long, the district's director of instructional technology and distance learning, said the district will create and distribute an instructional video to help parents and students set up and use the Chromebooks next week, though she did not give a timeline for distributing the actual Chromebooks.
She also said the district will use about $450,000 in CARES Act funds to expand Wi-Fi access throughout the district to allow internet access in parking lots, at sporting facilities and even maintenance facilities.
Board member Wesley Gordon requested the board hear from teachers who are having to teach virtually at a future board meeting, since currently the board has heard mostly from parents about how virtual learning is going.
"It seems to me we're doing the best we can, but some people have unrealistic expectations due to the fact that either they teach online at the university or they've taken an online class," he said. "We've thrust these teachers into a situation that they didn't sign up for. I do my best and try to be as kind to these parents as I can, but I'm catching one side."
Peasant said he has already asked teachers to submit their feedback to him, which he will provide the board at a future meeting, and he will also invite some teachers to speak to the board.
"Everything that you've said was correct," he said. "Teachers are not sitting back and trying to figure out what they can do for kids to fail. They're working their tails off. ... They're having to learn a whole new skill set in order to do this and continue to do what they already have been trained to do."
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