Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Earl Watkins had big news to deliver to the crowd at Walton Elementary on Aug. 30: Public schools in Jackson are making big gains in state accountability, according to federal monitoring programs.
"Our teachers are more dedicated than ever to making this district the most productive in the state," Watkins said, lauding the 14 schools that hit the two highest levels of achievement.
Based on ratings from the Mississippi Curriculum Tests given in the spring of this year, seven JPS schools earned the best rating, coming in at Level 5, while another seven schools earned Level 4. Thirty-two of the district's 55 schools got Level 3.
Schools with higher rankings, up from Level 4, include Davis, Smith and Walton elementary schools, while Casey, George, McWillie and Power APAC elementary schools held onto their Level 5 status. Schools at Level 4 include Isable, Johnson, Key, McLeod, Poindexter and Spann elementary schools, along with Murrah High School. Johnson and Poindexter, in particular, sprang to Level 4 from Level 2.
While 84 percent of JPS schools were rated Level 3 and above, nine of the district's schools posted a rating of Level 2. No schools hit rock bottom at Level 1.
The federal government determined that 10 district schools did not meet federal standards in mathematics or reading/language. Students in these schools will be offered an option to attend a better-performing school in or near the area.
Parents for Public Schools Executive Director Susan Womack explained that few JPS parents chose to take advantage of the different school option because they preferred their kids to attend a neighborhood school, either because of students' friends or familiar access to teachers.
"There's a lot of speculation that the law was designed to close schools, and I can't say either way, but I can say that meeting Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act is not a good indicator of whether the school is succeeding because it can be based on something that's only a small part of the picture," Womack said.
Womack added that a school on the low performing list could be habitually low performing or merely having trouble in certain areas, including the testing of children with disabilities, which she says must test on a grade level rather than a performing level.
The schools falling short of NCLB include Chastain, Hardy, Peeples, Powell, Siwell and Whitten middle schools, as well as Lanier, Forest Hill, Provine and Wingfield high schools.
On the upside, some schools that had fallen short of AYP in past years, including Blackburn, Rowan, Lanier and Provine, made it this year, though they will need to meet the requirements a second time in order to get taken off the watch list.
Watkins said the district is offering extra programs to improve student performance in math and language skills at troubled schools, and he believes school ratings would improve if parents took a more active role in the schools' clean-up efforts.
"We are optimistic that parents will look closely at the plans of improvement and special resources being offered at these schools—and choose to take advantage of them," Watkins said.
JPS got an emotional boost in ACT results rolling in from the spring of 2006, with the average ACT test score for the JPS graduating class creeping up a few points to 17.5, up from 16.8 last year. Statewide, Mississippi schools, both public and private, average 18.8 in ACT test scores, compared to a nationwide average of 21.1.
"These scores tell us that we've been right all along—our children can learn and can achieve great success," declared Watkins.
Also, seven Jackson schools got a small boost in their finances. Schools that achieved the highest level in state ratings will get $10,000 each from the district, amounting to $70,000 to spend on school programs and necessities.
On top of this, the district's seven Level 4, exemplary schools—Spann, Isable, McLeod, Poindexter, Johnson and Key elementary schools, along with Murrah High School, will receive $5,000, a total of $35,000. The two new Level 3 schools, Blackburn and Lanier will each get $3,000.
Womack said even though she saw the logic of allocating new money to lower-performing schools to improve performance, she also saw the benefit of offering awards.