Ryan Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Pecan Park Elementary School, left, checks to see what homework his daughter, Rylei, is bringing home, as they prepare to leave Johnson's classroom in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The Jackson Public School District received a “C” rating in the new accountability grades released last week, marking the first time it is not considered low-performing since 2014.

At the school board meeting last week, principals from dozens of Jackson schools were recognized for their efforts in improving grades or receiving top marks. 

“I am just completely full,” said JPS board member Cynthia Thompson. “As a parent of Jackson Public Schools and six of my babies graduating, and fighting through the madness that our children were not. They are, always have been, and I saw it from the beginning, and I just thank God that now the world can see it and celebrate with us.” 

The district, the second largest in Mississippi, narrowly avoided state takeover in 2017 after several years of being rated an “F.” The state Department of Education had recommended that then-Gov. Phil Bryant declare a state of emergency in the district, but Bryant declined, instead opting to form a new oversight commission. 

Across the state, schools have not received new grades since 2019 due to pandemic disruptions. Assessments did not occur in the spring of 2020, and while tests were administered in 2021, no accountability grades were given for student performance. 

Proficiency scores for reading and math returned to pre-pandemic levels in Jackson’s school district. History proficiency scores significantly surpassed previous scores, mirroring a statewide trend. Science proficiency scores conversely dipped below 2019 levels, also following statewide trends. 

The most significant improvements were seen in growth scores, which measure improvements in student performance year-over-year. The district also saw a 10 percentage point increase in the graduation rate. 

Every high school in JPS saw improvements in both their proficiency and growth scores, while many elementary schools only saw improvements in their growth scores. 

The district also celebrated Barack Obama Magnet Elementary School being ranked the #1 elementary school in the state.

“Have we arrived?” asked Errick Greene, superintendent of the Jackson Public School District, during a press conference. “Absolutely not. We’re not even close. As proud as we are of what we’ve achieved, we’re not even close to where we will be as we continue our trek toward excellence. But our commitment to excellence is definitely paying off.”  

Multiple district officials spoke at the board meeting about the goal to become a B-rated district next year, discussing plans to make it a reality. 

Greene, in an interview with Mississippi Today, acknowledged that this new accountability rating is fueled, in part, by improved growth scores, which may be higher than normal as students rebound out of pandemic learning declines. He pointed out that the district anticipated this and that they already have a roadmap to continue improving student achievement. 

When discussing how the district reached this point and their strategies moving forward, Greene pointed to new K-8 curriculum, benchmark assessments, ensuring teachers cover every component of a standard to help students reach proficiency, making sure that concepts build on one another, and emphasizing coaching and feedback for teachers and leaders at all levels.

“We hadn’t achieved this previously, so I desperately want to use this level of improvement as proof positive for the community, but also for our team, this is not beyond us,” Greene said. “We’re showing and proving to ourselves and to others that this can be accomplished, so I want to use this time and increased performance as the launching pad for the next.”

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.