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The Bottom Line Nowhere to Go but Up. A look at Student Achievement

As we contemplate dramatically improving the performance of our education system, the monumental effort this will take, and slow pace, makes many resign themselves to small tweaks to an outdated K12 model.

Others, however, are tackling the issue head on. The American Center for Transforming Education recently sat down with Dr. Edward Lee Childress, Superintendent of Corinth, Mississippi School District. Why Lee? Because he is from Mississippi, a state ranked 50/50 on K12 Achievement in Education Week’s Quality Counts 2017 report. The data isn’t good for these students who go to school in the worst performing state in the nation. However, in Corinth, a district with 61% poverty, 43% minority, and thousands less dollars per student than the national average, it has a 92% graduation rate and gaining. If Dr. Childress can do it…

Lee started as a classroom teacher. His career path then led him from managing training for 2000 school administrators at the Mississippi State Department of Education, to Director of School Improvement at DeSoto County School District, to nine years of Assistant Superintendent work at Corinth Public Schools. He was then promoted to Superintendent and has served in that capacity for the past 17 years. Dr. Childress is also President of the Program for Research and Evaluation in Mississippi Public Schools. If we were going to pick an outlier in the state at the bottom of the nation, it’s Lee. From boots on the ground experience, to Administrative training, to school improvement, to time to create trusted relationships with his community, the School Board, and his staff while in upper administration- this could all lead to success. It could also lead to complacency and comfort, not wanting to rock the status quo.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The problem, as articulated by Dr. Childress, was this: “Are our students truly prepared for careers and college? I hate to say- Many are not- because all a high school diploma presently says is that I have completed at least 13 or 14 years of school and made at least a passing grade in a prescribed number of classes.”

Lee and his team sought out Race to the Top funding, and hired a firm to do an analysis of the district. Both efforts gave him and his staff clear insights into the needs for improvement. When legislation passed in Mississippi allowing for Innovation Schools and Districts, they were ready.

That legislation allowed Corinth to obtain waivers from many of the state’s rules and regulations. This allowed Lee to put his teachers in charge of selecting a curriculum they felt was best for their students, not simply one that matched the progression of tested state standards. They selected a curriculum that teaches to a greater depth of knowledge, with open ended questions, and multiple answers. This new curriculum is now implemented district wide. The district also has a waiver to give their own assessments. Some are universal, for example the ACT for all 11th graders (they are scoring in the top 10 districts statewide), and the Cambridge course exams. Some assessments are performance-based depending on which, of the 7 diplomas which Corinth developed and offers, the student is selecting. Students concentrating in Career Technical Education take the national ACT WorkKeys exam, for example. Or if earning an ACE diploma, which Corinth negotiated, the student automatically obtains 10 college credits upon entrance at Mississippi State or the University of Mississippi.

All students complete the Mississippi course requirements, however they have a waiver from seat time requirements allowing students to test out, or demonstrate their learning through portfolio work, instead of sitting in the class. This frees up additional class time for coursework relevant to their college/career pathways. Seventy five percent of Corinth graduates attend Community College or University. Partnerships with local business- Kimberly Clark and Caterpillar, for example, are providing apprenticeships and internships for students who want employers to foot the bill for continued training after graduation.

Dr. Childress acknowledges that Mississippi is not as focused on achievement gaps as it should be. Which is why Corinth has requested their own accountability system for their 2,400 students, capable of drilling down into sub-groups and assessing where additional support or enrichment is needed. Corinth has attacked the Summer Slide by spreading out the school year, and adding intervention/enrichment ‘vacation’ breaks. One third of the students currently take advantage of these additional learning opportunities. Staff can opt for an additional contract to teach during these breaks, and professional and industry community members are also brought in to provide real world connections to learning.

What is next for Corinth?

  • ” Teachers and their municipally appointed school board are evaluating how teacher pay can include incentive pay for both professional development and student growth.”
  • “Although Corinth offers free pre-school for all students, they struggle to get families to sign up. These students who have not attended pre-school have only an outside chance of catching up to their peers. Corinth is building strong family engagement and is focused on narrowing this pre-K opportunity gap.”
  • ” Corinth is building a Center for Innovation, where additional rigorous vocational training choices are available to students.”
  • ” Corinth is constantly focused on increasing project-based, and student-directed learning experiences, because a 92% graduation rate isn’t good enough.”

The numbers in Corinth School District:

  • $8,569 per pupil spending (50% State, 24% Federal, 26% Local)
  • 61% Free/Reduced Lunch
  • 43% Minority
  • 2400 Students
  • 150 Teachers

Dr. Childress appreciates and celebrates his teachers, and the work they do. He supports his community. His appointed Board of Directors operate as a policy body. He manages the administration. From our conversation we took away the need to:

  • Focus on demographic data
  • Empower your teachers to be leaders, and act on their vision
  • Reimagine the school day and year
  • Remediate and challenge learners
  • Engage community
  • Believe in the success of every student
  • Spend money more effectively
  • Push state policy and ask to implement innovation, while being accountable for closing gaps and getting results
  • Provide multiple student pathways to provide learner choice
  • Make sure a diploma is more than a piece of paper. The diploma should demonstrate personalized knowledge and skills which employers and colleges recognize

A scholar who obtained the highest diploma offered in Corinth, the AICE Diploma, spoke at graduation. “Most of you can’t wait to get out of this small town. Before you go, let me tell you what this small town did for me. When I arrived in 1st grade I didn’t speak English. This school district wrapped its arms around me and supported me.”