While officials remain optimistic, damning report highlights Jackson Public Schools’ systemic issues

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Gia Lewis, 6, does homework while at a public meeting about the findings of the student based study on the school district during a public meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

A year ago, the Jackson Public School District was in trouble, having just narrowly avoided a state takeover. A recently released report shows while the district has many assets, systemic problems with organization and communication still plague JPS.

It’s been 13 months since Gov. Phil Bryant first announced the “third option” that is the Better Together Commission, a 15-member team of educators, business leaders and other professionals tasked with overseeing an evaluation of the nearly 24,000 student district and fostering more communication between those invested in JPS. The group came about in response to the Mississippi Department of Education declaring an emergency situation existed and requesting the governor declare a state of emergency so the department could take over the district.

Instead Bryant unveiled the commission, a partnership between his office, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and JPS to take on the task of turning around the failing school district.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba speaks to an audience about the findings from a student-centered study on the district during a public meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

“This is where the conservative governor and the radical mayor come together for the betterment of our children,” Jackson Mayor Chowke Antar Lumumba told a crowded room at the commission’s final community meeting Thursday evening. “This is merely a start… It’s not going to happen overnight, we will make mistakes.”

Since November 2017, the group has held monthly meetings, often filled with the same familiar faces eager to learn how to get involved. It conducted telephone polls, hosted community events and listening discussions.

The commission, with the help of One Voice, hired canvassers to knock on nearly 70,000 doors and ask Jackson residents how they felt about their local school district. In February, the commission hired California-based Insight Education group to conduct a study of the district and provide suggestions and solutions for the district’s issues.

That 231-page report titled “Ready to Rise: Our Students, Our Future, Our Time” published Thursday. The overall message is clear: JPS must do a better job of communicating expectations and goals to everyone in the district, and what’s in place right now is not working.

The report cites strong leadership in the superintendent and school board, caring staff and strong community interest in seeing the district succeed, but identifies five key areas for improvement:

• Organizational structure

• Core instruction

• Education for struggling students and those with special needs

• Talent management

•  Finances

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

A member of the audience holds literature about the Better Together Commission during a public hearing at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

On a call with other Better Together partners and reporters Thursday, Superintendent Errick Greene said the report’s recommendations were helpful but true change will take time. Greene took helm of the district in October, replacing interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray.

“I believe that each of the recommendations are worth serious consideration and action, but the reality is we don’t have the capacity right here today to do everything right now,” Greene said.

In March 2017, the district decided to reorganize into four regions. Officials said at the time the move would streamline efficiency. This is not the case, according to the report.

“There is widespread uncertainty about the district’s theory of action, mission, vision, and goals,” the report said in an executive summary.

To fix this, Insight recommends JPS create a new organizational chart that better aligns to the district’s goals, and foster more interaction and collaboration between central office and other offices in the district. Greene said this was his top priority as he and his staff begin putting together their own plan for improvement.

As for instruction, the report stated “Instructional practices across classrooms are varied and there is a lack of clear, rigorous expectations for teachers.”

The report suggests JPS create an office specifically devoted to curriculum and instruction, and consider revamping the current curriculum or purchase a new one entirely. Additionally, district leaders should create a framework for instruction that makes it clear to teachers what is expected of them.

The report also noted that while the district has decreased the number of tests this school year, benchmark assessments used to measure student progress yield “data that is not consistently usable for teachers” and employees expressed frustration with the volume of assessments they are required to administer.

JPS should clearly define why students are being tested and create a district-wide testing schedule to minimize interruptions to everyday instruction and allow staff more time to analyze the results, the report said.

The third area for improvement, exceptional education and struggling students, cited the familiar problem of inconsistent delivery of instruction and disorganization in the district’s central office.

“School interventionists in JPS spend less than 50% of their time with students on average, and individual interventionists’ schedules vary widely,” the report said.

The district should set clearly-defined roles and responsibilities for interventionists and set guidelines to determine when students should receive extra help, according to the report. JPS has a good foundation when it comes to providing social and emotional support for students, the report said, but how those roles fit together to create a coherent system is unclear.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Michael Moody, co-founder of Insight Education, speaks about a student based study on the school district during a public meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

During the call, Insight co-founder Michael Moody said the district should adopt a clear framework for this.

“If we’re not addressing the social and emotional needs of students, academics tend to fall to the wayside,” Moody said.

Greene agreed, telling reporters there is more work to be done when it comes to addressing students’ needs.

“We have to understand who our students are as people, whole people, not just brains,”
he said.

As for talent management, much like the other defined areas for improvement, the report suggested the district clearly communicate the roles and responsibilities of principals and develop a framework to do that. Teachers also need more opportunity for coaching and professional development.

When it comes to finances, the report states JPS is not making full use of available federal funds and should examine how it spends its money on staffing and contracts. The district’s budget should better align with student enrollment as well.

“As enrollment has declined over the years, the budget has not,” Moody said.

From its inception, the commission was created to engage the community, look for solutions, and produce the report in November 2018. Many officials involved in the commission referred to the Insight report as a roadmap for the district’s future.

What’s next for the Better Together Commission is not entirely clear — commission member Claiborne Barksdale said he suspects the entity will continue to exist in some form and work with the district and school board.

Gov. Bryant’s education policy adviser Pat Ross said “there are no hard timelines” but all of the partners (Kellogg, the governor’s office and JPS) are watching the district’s progress closely.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Pat Ross, education policy adviser to Gov. Phil Bryant, speaks to an audience about education and the recent student-centered study on the school district during a public meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

“That (turnaround) work does not happen quick enough or fast enough for everyone, but it’s an emergency situation that everybody recognizes,” Ross said.

The state Department of Education technically has the authority to attempt to take over again — JPS recently received it’s third consecutive F rating — but Greene said his interactions with MDE suggest the department is receptive to the efforts the district is making to improve with its corrective action plan. He plans to release the final version of a “strategic operating plan” for the district to operate by July 2019, he said. In the months leading up that, the district intends to work with the community to shape the plan.

“It’s going to be messy, we already know that,” Greene said. “But with all of us rolling up our sleeves and actually working to improve things and not simply talking about what needs to be improved, we’re going to win.”