Jackson Public Schools administrative building

Nearly six months after avoiding state takeover, the Jackson Public School District is coming in for harsh criticism from a national education consortium.

“The district is clearly at a cross-roads and must now decide on a more productive path forward if it is to institute positive results on behalf of Jackson’s public school children,” states the report released this week by the Washington, D.C.-based Council of the Great City Schools, representing 70 large school districts across the nation.

The 134-page report — outlining problems plaguing the district while also highlighting its current strengths — levels its harshest criticism on a new management structure the district adopted last year.

That structure has four assistant superintendents overseeing four separate regions based upon existing school feeder patterns. Each assistant superintendent reports to Freddrick Murray, the interim school superintendent.

According to the report, the Council team that toured the district in December said it has never seen a school district operate around its regions rather than functions.

“As currently organized, the district has little possibility of success in meeting its system-wide goals,” the report states.

The report argues that Jackson’s organizational structure “is driven more by individual personalities and relationships than by the district’s vision, direction, and priorities.”

In an email, district spokesperson Sherwin Johnson said the school district’s board has discussed possible revisions to the organizational structure to improve district operations, but no officials recommendations have been brought forth yet.

Johnson noted that the previous school board initially reached out to the council about performing a study “designed to be supportive and revealing with recommendations toward the development of plans and strategies to improve classroom instruction and daily operations.”

Members of the current school board were confirmed in November. Council members arrived in Jackson in December to tour the district and speak with teachers, district staff, parents and others for the report on the status of the district.

Last fall, the district narrowly avoided state takeover and instead entered into a partnership between the city of Jackson, the governor’s office, and W.K. Kellogg foundation. Together, these groups aim to correct many issues highlighted in a Mississippi Department of Education investigative audit that found the district in violation of 75 percent of state accreditation policies.

The biggest issue in the Council report just issued is the district’s governing structure. In May 2016, the previous school board approved a new organizational structure that split the district into four regions. School officials said the move would help streamline efficiency, but the report states the council “has never seen one of its member urban school districts as poorly structured as Jackson.”

The study lists the new school board as an asset to the schools. Members are tasked with a number of important responsibilities, including leading the search for a permanent superintendent and working in tandem with the Better Together Commission, board members interviewed for the study “demonstrated a clear and uniform sense of urgency, dedication to the district, attention to detail, and a focus on student achievement.”

JPS School Board President Jeanne Hairston

Board president Jeanne Hairston said the report will help the board and Better Together Commission continue to build a successful school district.

Although the report was initiated by the previous school board, Hairston said it affirms “efforts underway to transform the District and select a permanent superintendent.”

“The Council of Great City Schools Report provides a welcome assessment of where we are currently regarding JPSD staffing, curriculum, budget and spending,” Hairston said. “It affirmed many of the audit findings by the Mississippi Department of Education and underscored the challenges and opportunities that we face in our school district.”

The district also faces “unusually high rates of teacher and staff turnover in the school system,” according to the report. District leaders have repeatedly acknowledged that Jackson, like districts across the state and country, are facing a teacher shortage.

The report cites self-reported data by the district that shows the teacher retention rate in 2016-17 was 83 percent.

Johnson said that to address this issue, the district “has offered up to $2,500 in signing bonuses to newly hired teachers and re-established Curriculum and Professional Development departments to offer continued support for teachers and staff throughout the school year.”

The Council of the Great City Schools, based in Washington, D.C., spans 70 large urban school districts around the country including Jackson Public Schools. The council represents the needs of these districts through legislative efforts, research, and media relations, according to the organization’s website. The council also provides a network for member districts to compare problems and share information.

To view the full report and its recommendations, click here. The report was produced at at no cost to the district or taxpayers.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.