By Jeremy Pittari, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
The Picayune Memorial High School has a plan to improve the grade it recently received from the Mississippi Department of Education.
Grades released by the education department showed Picayune Memorial High School received a “D” on a scale of A through F, based on student performance. Graduation rates were not taken into consideration for this year’s release.
PMHS Principal Kent Kirkland sat down with the Picayune Item this week to layout his plan to improve not only the school’s grade on the state’s grading system, but also to improve the morale and subsequently the graduation rate at the school.
Kirkland said he and his administrative staff started working on their plan to improve student performance and morale in the spring, before the education department’s grades were released. Kirkland and his staff decided there are three areas the school will work on to improve: Student morale, attendance and growth on test scores.
Improving student morale school wide will help the students enjoy school more, and in turn increase attendance, Kirkland said. Some of those morale boosters include days where students can wear their favorite sports jersey to school instead of their school uniforms. Other themed days include island days where flip flops and Hawaiian shirts are encouraged or even free dress Fridays, but those will include stipulations.
“I think the kids have really enjoyed that,” Kirkland said. “It’s also gotten them to school.”
The school had an attendance rate of 94 percent last year, but Kirkland said he would like to see that percentage increased to as much as 97 percent, if possible.
To improve test scores, Kirkland said each class is now employing pre-tests at the beginning of the school year to determine where students are in their class work. Pre-tests, created and administered by each teacher, will help with determining in what areas each student will need the most help.
District tests will help the teachers determine how well the students’ needs are being met, and if they need remedial courses, Kirkland said. District Curriculum Coordinator Vera Beech said the four-by-four class schedules recently implemented at the high school allow teachers more time to provide differentiated instruction, which meets each student’s learning needs. Also, the use of small groups within a class puts together students on the same level, Kirkland said. By using small groups, students who are ready to move to the next concept can do so, and those who need more instruction can receive that as well.
“We want to grow everybody, we want to grow every student,” Kirkland said.
So far the school has been able to cut its dropout rate in half and to bring its graduation rate up to 79.1 percent, Beech said. In addition, last year the school had 23 students who scored a 25 or better on the ACT, and seven students who scored a 29 or better. Beech said students who score a 25 or better on the ACT receive a full scholarship to the Mississippi community college of their choice, while those who score a 29 or better receive a full scholarship to a Mississippi university.
Work to improve the school’s graduation rate starts with the freshmen. Kirkland said to keep the new high school students interested in school, a field day is held for the freshmen, regardless of performance. On Tuesday, students were out at the softball field playing kickball, getting face paintings, playing football and learning about the dangers of drinking and driving. Beech said statistics show a student who makes it past his or her freshman year has a 79 percent or better chance of staying until graduation.
Students who perform well also are rewarded for their hard work. Kirkland said students who performed “advanced” on the state test were taken recently to the water park on the Gulf Coast and to a beach day in Long Beach.
Ideas to improve testing scores also came from calling highly performing schools in the area. Kirkland said those conversations led to implementation of not testing students until they are ready, and if they are not ready, then computer software is used to help them catch up.
“We know we have some work to do, and everyone is working hard to better our grade,” Kirkland said. “We want to be an ‘A’ school as well.”
Kirkland is concerned, however, that students have more to face in their high school years than state tests and graduation. He said there are a number of social concerns students and the school has to deal with. Some adversities faced by students include growing up in non-traditional households, dealing with drugs or teen pregnancy. Students with children, or who have a child on the way, are more concerned with just finishing high school as opposed to scoring high on a state test, Kirkland said.