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At a junior high in Vicksburg, students in one classroom are skillfully maneuvering a mechanical robot around a line of cones, while those in another room hold a mock court trial based on the short story “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

At the Hinds Community College campus nearby, 9th graders in the district’s River City Early College High School are taking courses from teachers to prepare them for enrollment in college courses their junior and senior years.

Vicksburg Warren School District’s efforts are part of a new pilot program that exempts it and two other school districts from some state laws to allow schools to be more innovative in tackling the challenge of achievement gaps, particularly between white and minority and low socioeconomic status students and their peers.

“We’re looking at that employable mindset … We’ve set up incredible opportunities for our students,” including internship opportunities for students to begin making connections in the work world, says Vicksburg-Warren Superintendent Chad Shealy.

In a district where many students’ parents did not attend college, it is important for them to make these contacts with companies and organizations while they’re still in school, he said.

“Students can have the competency and not the access to relationships that get them interviews or jobs, and that’s one of the things that this particular mindset begins to do,” he continued.

While Vicksburg, a D-rated school district, received a total of nine waivers from certain state laws, Shealy believes two were the most important.

“One is the ability to take a retired engineer and get them into the classroom as a math teacher,” he explained. The other, he said, is a waiver allowing teachers to teach more than 150 students.

“One of our chemistry teachers is teaching a biomedical class, but we also wanted to offer a before-school AP Physics class,” Shealy said.

Current state law says teachers may not teach over a certain number of students in one day, but the waiver from the state allows Vicksburg teachers to have the flexibility to oversee more than 150 students. That waiver makes it possible for the teacher to teach the before-school class.

Interestingly, Shealy said much of what the district wanted to do could have been done without waivers. For example, it asked the Mississippi Department of Education to allow students to enroll in as many online classes as needed and to allow the district to offer more Carnegie units at the junior high level so students can graduate with two years of college work and a high school diploma in four years.

“Our waivers process in and of itself was very liberating. It made us look at what we wanted, what are the things we really have to have, and forced us to go back and look at our own policy. There are these self-imposed shackles, things educators just do because it’s what they’ve always done,” Shealy explained.

For example, the STEM-focused Academy of Innovation junior high launched in the 2015 school year — before the district was approved for the program.

Eighth graders in the robotics class at the academy will receive one 9th grade credit by the time they go to high school. They will compete in a robotics competition and are learning computer coding.

A robot maneuvers past a plastic cup in one of the innovation classrooms at Vicksburg-Warren County schools.
A robot maneuvers past a plastic cup in one of the innovation classrooms at Vicksburg-Warren County schools. Credit: Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Eighth grader Peyton McKenzie said she and classmates in her group built a robot that was programmed to draw a circle on a piece of paper on the floor at the Lego robots competition last year. Currently, the students are working on designing greenhouses to house the plants they’re growing in science class.

“We’re designing and making videos for what our greenhouses will look like, and we’ll decide as a group which one to use,” McKenzie explained.

In the classroom upstairs, 8th grader Logan Lane delivers weekly sportscasts in his digital media class at the Academy of Innovation.

“I think it’s more fun and more interactive. You get to do more projects and hands-on stuff,” Lane described of classes at the school.

Graduating high school with college credit

A group of 9th and 10th graders will take their classes at Hinds Community College from Vicksburg Warren teachers in preparation to take college level courses during their last two years of high school. This is part of a district-wide effort for all students to graduate with an associate’s degree, two years of college credit, or a career tech certificate.

This year, 60 9th graders enrolled in the River City Early College High School.

“It’s not just for the elite,” Lucy DeRossette, the district’s director of innovation, said. “We want it for any child that wants this opportunity. They all went through an interview process and the only thing that wouldn’t allow them to enroll is poor attendance or discipline issues.”

DeRossette noted there are some students with special needs in the school. The high school will continue to expand each year until it includes 9th through 12th graders.

Vicksburg already had its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-focused Academy of Innovation the prior year. The junior high currently has 300 students in the 7th and 8th grade and expects to continue expanding beyond capacity.

The STEM focus is particularly important in Vicksburg, which houses the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), one of the premier engineering and scientific research organizations in the world, Shealy said.

This year is the first year all 10th graders at the high schools will choose a career pathway. The pathways are Architecture, Construction, Mechatronics, and Engineering (ACME), Communications, Arts and Business (CAB), and Health and Human Services (HHS).

“The teachers take an English class that might’ve been so boring to a young man and makes it more relevant to him. So if I were teaching 9th grade English and had to teach Romeo and Juliet. If I was teaching in our ACME academy, I’d teach with an extra focus on the Globe Theater and the design of it,” DeRossette explained. “If I was teaching in health and human sciences, we would talk about the herbs and drugs the couple took. If it was communications, arts and business, the questions would be: ‘What did the Montagues and Capulets do that they were so wealthy?’”

In 2013, the district’s graduation rate was just over 58 percent. In 2016, it jumped to 69.2 percent, a 3.3 percent jump from 2015.

Shealy attributes this to students not finding school relevant and not having meaningful relationships with the adults at school.

To address that, he created the career academies to make the high school curriculum more relevant, and each student has a mentor he or she meets with once a day.

Innovation in Corinth

Corinth also requested a waiver that allows the district to hire teachers who don’t hold standard educator licenses. According to Superintendent Lee Childress, the district currently has three such teachers. They teach engineering, advanced science, and career and tech biomedical science.

Corinth School District Superintendent Lee Childress
Corinth School District Superintendent Lee Childress Credit: Miss. Assoc. of School Superintendents

“It’s really going great because they are able to apply those experiences from their career to create real life simulations in the classroom that better engages the children in learning,” Childress explained.

Corinth also has a modified school calendar it first shared with the community two years ago. School starts early in mid-June, and there is a three-week break in October and March during which students can attend remediation and enrichment activities. Childers said around 600 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, participated in the activities during the October break.

Enrichment classes are open to all students and consist of project-based learning.

High schoolers in Corinth will also get more options for graduation. The district has seven different possible diplomas, including one for honors students, one for those who complete a “work-based experience” or internship, one for students who earn four credits on Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) exams, and an array of other options.

Gulfport School District was also selected to participate in the district of innovation program but was unable to provide details to Mississippi Today.

Looking forward

The Mississippi Department of Education said it will be looking at the results of each district to make sure that good practices are shared statewide. If any of the results suggest all school districts would benefit from a change in state requirements, the department would consider requesting those changes, said Jean Massey, the state’s executive director of secondary education.

Each district sets goals for their programs including increases in ACT and SAT, graduation, dual credit, work-based learning opportunities and decreases in remediation. At the end of each year, the district submits a status report highlighting its accomplishments, and at the end of the five-year period can re-apply for the status again.

Massey said the department has met with more districts interested in applying for innovation status, which are due at the end of November. Interviews will take place in January.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.