During the Muscogee County School Board’s work session last week, the question of how well the public schools in Columbus are educating children was like a Rorschach test – open to interpretation.
Patrick Knopf, the Muscogee County School District’s director of research, accountability and assessment, gave the board an overview of the 2017 College and Career Ready Performance Index, the state’s rating on a 100-point scale that summarizes the academic achievement and progress of each school and district. The Ledger-Enquirer reported MCSD’s scores the previous week.
After the presentation from Knopf, board member Frank Myers of District 8 praised Forrest Road, Johnson and Waddell elementary schools for their double-digit gains. “That is incredible,” he said. “That is really, really good.”
Myers acknowledged MCSD’s overall “incremental gains” for the fourth straight year – a half-point increase in 2017 to 71.0 from its 70.5 in 2016. Muscogee’s score was 67.2 in 2012, 66.5 in 2013, 68.5 in 2014 and 69.0 in 2015. But MCSD’s score continues to lag behind the state average —and fell behind the state’s improvement pace. The average CCRPI in Georgia increased by 1.4 points, from 73.6 points in 2016 to 75.0 in 2017.
Out of MCSD’s 53 assessed schools, 25 improved their scores but 27 went down and one remained the same, Myers said.
Myers acknowledged the Georgia Milestones tests and the CCRPI formula often change from year to year, so “it makes it difficult for school systems to be held accountable when you keep moving the goal. That’s kind of what’s happened here. But comparing us to what we did last year is probably the fairest way to look at it.”
Although the number of chronically failing schools – now called Turnaround Eligible Schools – is down to five in MCSD (from 10 in February 2015), “we have 13 schools that got an F from the state this year while we’ve all been sitting on this board, and 13 got Ds,” Myers said. “We’ve just got to do better.”
Myers suggested staff at the MCSD schools that received an F from the state should visit the double-digit gainers — including Waddell Elementary School, which led MCSD in CCRPI improvement this past year — and learn how they improved so much.
MCSD superintendent David Lewis said when his administration started his improvement plan after the board hired him in July 2013 from Polk County, Fla., where he was an associate superintendent, MCSD had 23 schools with F grades from the state.
Lewis also told Myers the principals and leadership teams from failing schools indeed visit schools with double-digit growth to understand how they “implement the curriculum and high-yield strategies with fidelity. … We dig down and drill down deeper into the data.”
Each school has a unique, comprehensive and vetted improvement plan, Lewis said. “It’s not a template that’s filled out,” he said.
His administration has started “live meetings” in which the leadership team of each school connects with district officials via a virtual conference. “We talk about what school needs are, what resources they need, and we fulfill them right then or within a few days,” Lewis said. “So we are looking very intently.”
The stability of a school’s staff also is a factor, Lewis said. Columbus State University’s pre-service training program helps teachers hired by MCSD already be prepared to implement the district’s math and reading curricula, EnVisionMath and Reading Wonders.
“So we’re taking a lot of definitive steps to address these concerns,” Lewis said. “Please know that it’s not lost on us, anyone in this room, about the need for continuing improvement. But we also realize these are schools comprised of children, staff members and the variables that go with that. We continue to work on those and continue to press forward.”
Vice chairwoman Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone countywide representative, said, “We as a board have to make sure that we’re doing our part to provide those resources.”
To that end, Chambers asked the administration to send board members the school improvement plans for the five schools on the Turnaround Eligible list: Baker and Rothschild middle schools and Brewer, Dorothy Height and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools.
“Actually,” Lewis replied, “we’re going to send you all of them.”
Noting that the school district’s quality is among the factors employers consider when they decide their location, Myers said he wishes the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce “would come in here and start holding this board’s and this administration’s feet to the fire so that we can fix the school system and then we would be more attractive. If we fix the school system, we fix crime and we fix poverty.”
MCSD is ranked 119th out of 182 school districts in the state, Myers said.
“That’s barely out of the bottom third,” Myers said. “That is progress because we have been in the bottom third since I started following it. So we’re a little bit out of the bottom third, but to me that’s just not the type of progress I want to see. I want to see a lot more action.”
Lewis invoked one of his mantras – “Schools cannot do this work alone” – and said, “We have plenty of opportunities for volunteering in our schools. I want to encourage everyone who is interested in doing that.”
The administration is exploring extending the academic year for its lowest-performing schools, Lewis said.
“The agrarian calendar of 180 school days is simply not enough in this day and age,” Lewis said. “Some of these schools, we need to consider extending not the school day but the school year.”
The following day, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Lewis for more details about this possibility, including which schools are being considered and why. He said in an email to the L-E, “The details of this progressive concept have not yet been established but, once finalized, will be presented to the Board. The schools served would be those lowest-performing schools whose students would benefit from additional instructional time beyond the traditional 180-day school year, focusing on literacy and math instruction provided by certified teachers.”
Myers mentioned that the superintendent should hold principals accountable.
“Take a look at how many principal changes have been made over the years,” Lewis said.
District 7 representative Cathy Williams said, “A lot.”
Schools all over the United States “have basically the same problems,” District 4 representative Naomi Buckner said. “Mr. Myers can truly make a whole lot of money if he has the solution to fixing all these schools. … Everybody would like a simple remedy, but we don’t have that. What we have before us is to work and to work and to continue to work.”