Best education money can buy varies dramatically in two school districts

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As the debate over public school funding rages on — how much is adequate and from where should the money come? — Mississippi Today reporters Kate Royals and Kayleigh Skinner visited two school districts, one considered affluent, the other economically challenged. They compared financial resources in the Madison County and Philadelphia public school districts and saw the impact that money has on the quality of education that can be offered in each.

 

 

MADISON

Madison Avenue Upper Elementary School is surrounded by affluent neighborhoods and a well-manicured community park with a pond and playground. Posters advertising a raffle for a chance to win a trip surround the entrance to the school.

On a recent school day, principal Kim Hurst visited classrooms and talked with the school’s custodian, whom staff and students affectionately call Mr. T, about a major leak in the cafeteria. She called the district’s maintenance director to report the problem, and within an hour, the issue was resolved.

Third graders dressed in colorful animal costumes practiced for a production of The Lion King play in the school’s auditorium, but their production would take place at Madison Central High School’s gym, the same location where President Donald Trump, then a candidate, held a rally in 2016.

Inside classrooms, students work furiously on benchmark assessments – tests given to mark their mastery of a subject and identify children who need extra help – on their Dell Chromebooks. The computers were supplied by the district for first graders at the lower elementary, and the school’s parent teacher organization (PTO) bought them for the students at the upper elementary.

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Madison Avenue Upper Elementary students take benchmark assessments on Dell Chromebooks.

As in most states, property wealth is a large factor in how much funding Mississippi school districts receive in any given year. While the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) allocates funding based on student characteristics as well as necessary resources such as staffing and supply levels, local property value also plays a role.

MAEP requires local districts to contribute 28 mills, or $28 for every $1,000 of assessed property value in the school district. But MAEP also contains a controversial component known as the 27 percent rule. If the value of 28 mills raised in a school district is more than 27 percent of the total funding amount, the state provides the difference between the two amounts.

Critics of the formula argue the 27 percent rule allows property-wealthy districts across the state to keep $120 million in state funds they would otherwise have to raise locally. The Madison County School District falls into this category. The resources it offers students are easy to see.

The elementary school’s full-time literacy specialist, Stephanie Peets, works with students from all three grades who are struggling with reading.

The lower school also employs an English Language Learner specialist — an important asset because English learners’ test scores will count toward schools’ and districts’ accountability grades from the state.

“They (the literacy specialists) look at need. We get in, and we address them. And we have great communication with lower so we know (who is coming in who needs help),” Hurst described. “It’s a proactive approach rather than trying to put a bandaid on and fix it at the end.”

Madison County School District Superintendent Ronnie McGehee spearheaded the effort to put literacy specialists in all of the district’s schools years ago. McGehee said it was part of “a commitment we made to increase literacy with all students at every location.”

The move was made even before lawmakers passed the Third Grade Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which requires third graders to pass a reading test before moving on to the fourth grade. The law also provided funding for some literacy coaches across the state, but not nearly enough to place one at every school.

Technology is not lacking, thanks to more help from the PTO. Parents provided Promethean boards, which are large, iPad-like interactive whiteboards, for every classroom in the building. In addition to supporting technology, the PTO pays the salary of two art teachers who work with the students on Tuesdays while the regular teachers have weekly meetings.

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Madison Avenue fourth grade English Language Arts teacher works through a problem with her students on the classroom’s Promethean board.

All of the teachers at the school are highly qualified and nearly 10 percent are National Board Certified, the highest certification teachers can receive. Hurst said she has no brand new teachers this school year.

“We don’t have that many (new teachers) come in because they stay until they retire here,” she said.

The school is located a short distance from the private Madison Ridgeland Academy, and Hurst said she’s very aware parents in Madison County — which has the second-highest median income of all counties in the state — have options.

Anna Garletts, a fifth grade English Language Arts instructor, has taught for 11 years, 10 of those in Madison County. She spent her first year of teaching in Jackson Public Schools and recalls paying out of her own pocket for pencils and paper for her students.

At Madison Avenue Upper Elementary, she says, everything she needs for her classroom is provided, “all the way down to Clorox and Germ-X.”

She works closely with other teachers, she said, and always feels supported by her principal. If a teacher is struggling with curriculum or lessons and needs help outside the school, the district sends in curriculum specialists to work with him or her.

And the majority of her students arrive in her classroom at the educational level where they’re supposed to be, she says.

Principal Hurst said the school works closely with Madison Avenue Lower Elementary and analyzes the data on each student to identify which ones need extra help. Posters dividing the names of the students in each grade into three tiers line the wall of the teachers’ conference room. Each poster clearly indicates students who are failing, passing and proficient or advanced in each subject.

The objective is to move each child up to the next one or two levels, but as Hurst points out, it is just as important to move the kids in the “passing” category to “proficient and advanced.” Schools and districts aren’t credited for students scoring pass, or level 3, on the state’s accountability ratings. There’s also an emphasis placed on moving the lowest-performing students to a higher achievement level.

The approach works: Almost 70 percent of students were proficient in reading last year, with nearly the same in math and an impressive 93 percent proficiency rate in science.

Hurst credits the high science scores at Madison Avenue Upper with the school’s overall emphasis on science,which is woven into the other subjects. Also, all math and science teachers received a week’s worth of extra professional development on teaching the subject.

The school also has two science labs, one on the third grade hall and another on the fifth grade hall.

“The key was starting at 3rd grade. … We just kind of incorporate it with reading and math so it’s not always taught as a separate entity,” Hurst said.

For example, each year Hurst and other staffers, in conjunction with community members ranging from the mayor to members of law enforcement, coordinate a huge night for the students. The theme for last year’s event was Mission Possible. Students used scientific methods to solve the staged crime of a stolen chandelier.

The school is also successful in its behavior and discipline practices. The University of Southern Mississippi recognized it as the first model site in the county for its implementation of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support, a method that encourages consistent expectations and rules, in addition to reinforcing students for good behavior, among other tactics.

Hurst said implementing some of the strategies cut bus and office referrals for discipline to nearly nonexistent numbers.

Madison Central High School

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Madison Central High School

Students at Madison Avenue Upper Elementary who stay in the district eventually end up at the A-rated Madison Central High School in the 10th grade.

The high school boasts nearly 20 Advanced Placement (AP) classes as well as numerous electives and other academic pathways.

The Mississippi Department of Education recommends high schools offer at least four AP courses, one in each core subject. But not all high schools are able to offer that many, according to education department spokeswoman Jean Cook.

Students’ access to technology continues at the high school. The district was one of the first to implement a technology initiative giving each high school student his or her own MacBook Air laptop in the 2014 school year. The students use the laptops both at school and at home.

High schoolers can also take college-level English and algebra courses at Holmes Community College and receive both high school and college credit. Madison Central also offers two academic academies: an Academy of Engineering and an Academy of Multimedia and Communications.

But the success of the school goes deeper than beyond the availability of technology and gadgets to something more basic, according to Principal Austin Brown. He sees the plethora of options for students as the key ingredient in their recipe for success: relationships.

“If kids have some kind of relationship in some program. … No matter what their interest, they can find something they’re interested in and find a place to belong,” he said.

If academics or band or choir aren’t a student’s thing, there are more than 50 clubs to choose from — including the minority student union and the cooking club. And the approach appears to work: The school reported a graduation rate of 92 percent last year, well above the state and national average.

The school’s four guidance counselors regularly bring in recruiters for after-high school experiences, including military, workforce development and college recruiters.

Brown said there is rarely a day that no one is stationed outside the school cafeteria talking to students about options.

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Madison Central High School AP chemistry teacher Michelle Robinson

AP Chemistry and engineering teacher Michelle Robinson founded the school’s engineering academy. The academy is in its fourth year and Robinson, a National Board Certified teacher, said she’s having former students report back how prepared they felt when they got to college.

“We sought out (the curriculum) our kids would need for a four-year engineering degree and stepped up that program to meet the needs of our students. … Now that we’ve had kids graduate, we’re hearing the benefit from them in college,” Robinson said. “They’re all coming back to tell me how prepared and how easy everything is, and how thankful they are they have experience with Excel and the computers.”

Robinson, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in science education, took a $9,000 pay cut to come from a suburb of Atlanta to Madison County to teach. She said she never has a problem with getting the resources she needs for her classes, but notes teachers also regularly apply for grants.

“We definitely have all the lab supplies we need for science. If teachers need specimens and strains of whatever, you know, they have ample means to get it,” she said. “We have money to replace and repair — funds set specifically aside to repair microscopes so there’s some thought ahead for even repairing and maintaining what we do have.”

PHILADELPHIA

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Phildelphia High School biology teacher Jennifer Johnson teaches students about the human heart using a deer heart as a real example.

On a recent school day here, students participated in a routine day of learning — kindergarteners rolled out letters of the alphabet in play dough, older elementary schoolers used colorful flashcards to practice sounding out words, and at the high school, some students got up close and personal with a deer heart in biology class.

With a little more than 1,000 students, this central Mississippi district is split into two schools, an elementary and a high school.

The elementary campus houses pre-kindergarteners up to sixth graders, something Superintendent Lisa Hull said she would like to change but there is not enough room to move the sixth graders to the high school now. Approximately a mile across town, the high school serves grades 7-12.

Hull said that if funding were not an issue, she would hire additional teachers to reduce class sizes and add tutors so students could receive attention in smaller groups.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Philadelphia School District Superintendent Lisa Hull poses with students.

“Ability levels are everywhere within the classroom, and with a school district that is a high poverty district you need those extra resources to give that individual attention to your children,” she said.

Like many districts across the state, Philadelphia is facing a shortage of qualified teachers. One left at the beginning of the school year and another had to leave for family reasons, Hull said, “and very frankly, we’re not having a lot of applicants.”

Hull said neighboring districts also are searching for staff and reaching out to teachers in her district.

“We have had some that have gone over and interviewed,” she said. “That’s a real struggle as well, when not only are there not that many teacher people out there and then other school districts are raiding your school district to staff their school district.”

Although census data shows a student poverty rate of 34.6 percent, the district opted to offer free lunch and breakfast to all students because a high percentage of the student population qualifies for food stamps under federal guidelines. District food service coordinator Sarah Hardy said the program has been a wonderful thing.

“You totally avoid overt identification,” Hardy said. “We never want to single anyone out for anything like that.”

Philadelphia Public School District maintained its C accountability rating for the 2016-17 school year. The high school improved from a C to a B- rating while the elementary school was just two points away from a B, something Hull said was “absolutely heartbreaking,” but she is proud of the work her teachers do.

Hull recounted a moment a few years ago when some of her teachers saw data from a new state test for the first time. They “cried and cried and cried because they took it personally that their children did not do as well as they should have done.”

Teachers examine their students’ data so they can learn more about where a child might be struggling with a particular subject or issue, Hull said.

“Our success is 100 percent based on the work that our teachers and our administrators put in at these school levels,” Hull said. “Our teachers are constantly calling parents to help them, they’re constantly analyzing their data and going, ‘Okay this kid can do this, this and this, why are their scores not where they’re supposed to (be)?'”

Parents for Public Schools Philadelphia is working on several projects, such as a “parent university” that would connect parents with retired teachers and staff to learn how to help their children in school and how to approach the school with problems, among other things. The group is also trying to create new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) projects, Hull said.

“We’ve got great support from our community and people trying to help, but when you get to the school and you’re trying to teach everything that you have got to teach, we just know that we need some additional human resources,” Hull said. “And, of course, that takes money.”

The district offers Advanced Placement courses for high schoolers, but Hull said enrollment is down this year because fewer students signed up. She would like to increase access to dual-enrollment courses, but that also requires additional funding.

“To me that is absolutely an equity issue between an affluent school district and a poor school district,” Hull said. “Why should just because you live in an affluent area, why should you have access to those classes and I live in a poverty area and I don’t have access to those classes?”

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Student artwork decorates a hallway inside Philadelphia Elementary School.

The halls and classrooms of Philadelphia Elementary School are brightly decorated with handmade signs, rainbow and alphabet rugs, student projects and colorful sheets of paper with reading instructions.

Much of it is paid for by teachers out-of-pocket, Philadelphia Elementary School Principal Jason Gentry said.

“They do that with their own money,” Gentry said.

Teachers receive a few hundred dollars with education enhancement funds (EEF) provided by the state, but those are quickly spent on basic supplies so teachers often stock their classrooms on their own, he said.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Philadelphia Elementary School Principal Jason Gentry

“This is my 24th year in education, and the whole funding issue has really sucked the life out of some schools just from the basis of not having the resources that you need,” Gentry said.

Administrators nicknamed the wing of the school where pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms are housed “Happy Valley.” On a recent afternoon, Gentry and assistant principal Travis Creel entered a classroom and were greeted by students who enthusiastically hugged the men and shouted, “Hey Coach Creel!”

The state provides the district with a literacy coach, and there are also reading interventionists on staff paid through Title I funding, Hull said. The interventionists work with students in the lower grades and do a “super good job” helping the district’s youngest learners become familiar with phonemic awareness, or understanding the sounds in words.

Gentry would like to have more teachers on staff, but funding makes that difficult, he said.

“We’ve had to cut and it’s not something we want to do,” Gentry said. For third grade, “in all reality you probably need four (teachers), but with the funding you’ve really got to pack kids in because you can’t afford to hire another teacher plus their benefits.”

Kate Royals reported from Madison County. Kayleigh Skinner reported from Philadelphia.