Tunica Elementary teacher Kevin Collins talks to his 5th grade class after returning from lunch. Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

TUNICA — A year and a half ago, Tunica County School District was in shambles.

But last month, the state Education Department announced it is recognizing Tunica in its “Celebration of Excellence” tour, citing the improved achievement of the district’s lowest-performing students.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the former superintendent and the school board were at each other’s throats, with a lawsuit filed by a school member against the district leader.

Special education students were not receiving individualized accommodations as required by law. When 9-week test grades were lost at the middle school in the fall of 2014, teachers were instructed not to give any student lower than a ‘C’ as a result. Of the district’s five schools, three were rated ‘D’, one ‘F’ and one ‘A.’ Overall, the state rated the district as a ‘D’ under the accountability grading system.

Gov. Phil Bryant and the State Board of Education decided in July 2015 to declare a state of emergency in the district of about 2,100 students, abolish the leadership and appoint Margie Pulley as conservator of the district. It was the second time the district, where the vast majority of students come from low-income households and qualify for free and reduced lunch, had been taken over by the state. The first time was in 1997.

But the most recent turnover has both local and state educators crowing over their success: Tunica achieved the highest growth in math in the state among the lowest-performing 25 percent of both high school and elementary students.

Focus on teaching and learning

Pulley said she turned the district around with a simple, but not easy, strategy: a focus on teaching and learning.

“We have two goals: clear the process standards and improve student achievement,” she said.

Pulley also noted the necessity of understanding the state’s new accountability model and the emphasis it places on student growth, or the movement of a student from a lower performance level to a higher level.

The number of benchmark assessments increased in all schools, and those tests were no longer made by individual teachers in order to ensure uniformity across schools and to uphold the integrity of the data.

“All of our tests right now are generated from the central office. That test is not in the building until the day of the test so I know that I’ve got good data,” Pulley said.

At the school level, only a few personnel changes were made. Pulley hired Valerie Davis, who had worked with the district years ago, to take over at the F-rated Robinsonville Elementary. The next year, the school was rated a ‘B.’

Davis, who is the principal at the high school this year, said she made three personnel changes at Robinsonville and immediately began analyzing student data, a priority emphasized by Pulley.

“We dug into the data at weekly data meetings. Every Tuesday, the teachers had to own their data and know anybody in the red zone. They had to have a name attached to their data – you could not talk to me about student data and not call (the person) by name,” Davis said.

Once the lowest-performing students were identified, teachers began meeting with struggling students during a built-in, regular intervention block during the day.

“We know that when you affect the bottom, you affect all growth of students,” Pulley said.

Ashley McKay, the mother of a kindergartner and third grader at Robinsonville, said under the previous administration’s leadership, the school was in chaos.

“From pre-K up until third grade, (my daughter) had a different principal every year, so it was very unstable,” said McKay, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization. She also recalled the school’s rating dropping from a ‘B’ to an ‘F’ during the same period.

“It was very disheartening as a parent because we were so prideful of our schools, and we knew we can do better than that,” she said.

The instability and problems with leadership prompted McKay and others to submit a petition to the state education department to remove then-superintendent Stephen Chandler.

McKay met with Pulley when she first came to the district to find out how parents and community members could help her turn things around in the district. One issue she and others tackled was increasing school attendance.

“One of the things we started doing was helping with advertising for community meetings or meetings the school district was having, whether it be federal programs or school updates,” McKay said, noting the importance of getting parents involved in the schools.

She and others also helped parents pre-register their children for the school year, which helped students get ready for the first day of school. Parents were also kept in the loop when it came to what was going on with their children.

“As a parent I was very knowledgeable,” said Tracy Duncan, the mother of two children at Robinsonville. The school held monthly meetings with parents to keep them informed. She also saw a difference in her children’s homework.

“Teachers would send home meaningful homework that would implement the standards that my children were learning,” Duncan explained.

But Davis said the real work lies ahead. Having had experience moving a failing school before, sustaining that progress is the challenge. “I never worked harder in my life because it’s harder to sustain than to get it the first time,” she said.

High school improvements

Derrick Dace, the former principal at Rosa Fort High School, said when Pulley came to the district, it was in “disarray.” Pulley immediately tackled the top issues at the high school level: testing and data, dual enrollment, graduation and ACT scores.

At the high school, teachers at Rosa Fort gave up their planning periods to work with students who needed extra help. Derrick Dace, the former principal at the school and the district’s current federal programs director, would jump in when needed.

The school also increased its number of students participating in dual enrollment, or students also enrolled in classes at the community college, from under 10 to between 60 and 70.

District leaders looked at the barriers to dual enrollment: the cost of the course fee and textbooks and classes being held at night. The district began paying for the students’ fees and textbooks, and the community college teachers came to the high school campus to teach the classes.

Making sure the college courses were available during the day and on campus helped increase dual enrollment participation, Pulley and Dace said.

“My attitude was you’re going to pay one way or the other. You’re going to pay for the remediation” if they don’t get the education at the high school level, Pulley explained.

They also began offering incentives to students who performed well, ranging from ice cream and pizza parties to a trip to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and college tours.

“Believe it or not, I’m sure he (Dace) had kids that probably had never been to Indianola, Mississippi. That sounds like ‘you’ve got to be kidding,’ but I didn’t want them to just go to a basketball game,” Pulley said, explaining the need for cultural field trips. “You’ve got to expose the children to the four-year college.”

The result is that Rosa Fort had the highest math growth of lowest-performing students in the state for all high schools. It also ranked in the top five percent for English and Language Arts growth. It scored a ‘C’ on this year’s accountability ratings, a mere 10 points away from the cutoff for a ‘B.’

“It was data all the time. We started making tests for our teachers – started out by doing 9-week assessments, then four and a half week assessments, then every two weeks,” former principal Dace said. “We knew who we had to move.”

Although the school made drastic improvements, ACT scores, which all high school juniors now take, remain low. A two-point increase last year brought the district to an average ACT score of 16.

Tunica’s future

While members of the community are happy about the progress being made, there’s fear over the uncertainty of Tunica’s future.

McKay, the parent of two at Robinsonville Elementary, said she’s unsure how a new superintendent and school board will be appointed once the state leaves.

“I don’t really know if I trust MDE (Mississippi Department of Education) and other folks to kind of choose our school board members … With MDE not being a part of our community and us not being able to vote for people, I don’t know the process they’ll have for getting community input on those applying for the school board,” McKay said.

Before the state took over, the school district voted to elect Derrick Dace, the district’s current federal programs director, as the new superintendent. But after the state took over and the Legislature passed a law requiring all superintendents to be appointed rather than elected, it is unclear whether Dace will be the next superintendent.

“I hope they would do the will of the community and appoint Derrick Dace,” McKay said.

After the governor sets the date for the election of new board members, then either all five are elected or a combination of elected and appointed ones take their positions. Once the new board is seated, it then selects the new superintendent. Mississippi Department of Education officials point to Tunica as a model for other school districts in trouble, but some community members worry what will happen once the district is turned back over to locals.

Tunica County School District headquarters
Tunica County School District headquarters Credit: Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

“They have made tremendous progress over the last 18 months to a year,” Gretchen Kagle, the department’s director of special education, said.

The district’s most serious violations were in special education, and they are still working to clear that standard, along with two others concerning libraries and gifted education.

“If you look back on the initial report, there were so many citations – I can’t even tell you how many there were – and they have worked incredibly hard with support from our office,” she said. “We basically lived in Tunica last school year and (Pulley) hired a great new special education director who kept that work going that we had helped start.”

Kagle said the district had 290 IEPs, or individualized education plans, for special education students it had to correct. It has cut that number down to six or fewer. There is no specific timetable for Pulley to continue with the district.

When asked when she thinks she will be done, she responds, “When the work is complete.”

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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.