Legislative Task Force sees two extremes in school visits

Published 7:39 pm Wednesday, September 24, 2008


When a legislative task force visited two school districts last week, they witnessed two extremes in operating schools. The schools could not have been more alike in some respects or more different in others. The school districts were almost identical in terms of size and demographics, but they were very different in terms of student learning outcomes.

The task force was established by Senate Bill 2405 in the 2008 regular Legislative Session to study and report on the status of underperforming schools and school districts, and the enhancement of accountability and sanctions imposed on those schools and school districts. The bill also stipulated that the task force visit two high performing schools and two underperforming schools to determine if there are some practices at high performing schools that can be replicated at underperforming schools that will raise student achievement and ensure that every student receives an excellent education.

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The task force visited Leland School District first. Leland has three schools, one of which is rated Level 5-Superior Performing and two of which are rated Level 4-Exemplary. On the next day, the task force visited Hazlehurst School District, which also has three schools. All of the Hazlehurst Schools are rated Level 2-Underperforming. The district is currently under conservatorship. In each location, the task force members toured the schools, observed classrooms, met with school leaders, including board members, teachers, students, parents and members of the community.

In Leland, the task force saw students actively engaged in learning and listened as teachers talked about the support they received from one another, their lead teachers, principals and superintendent. The teachers discussed how they used data to drive instruction and ensure that students were staying on track with the curriculum. Community leaders talked about how the school and community work together to help students succeed. They talked about how they watch over their own children and each other s children, even picking them up and driving them to school if they see someone who should be at school and is not. Even the students talked about the high expectations that their teachers, parents and others in the community have for them.

In Hazlehurst, the task force saw little of the same. That’s not to say there aren’t good teachers, committed leaders, caring parents and students who are eager to learn. There certainly are. They just need to find a way to put the thousands of pieces of the educational puzzle together to achieve great results, much the way that Leland has. Part of the mission of the task force is to help Hazlehurst and other underperforming schools find ways to accomplish this.

In Leland, there is a spirit of excellence that is palpable. Each person knows they have an important role to play in the success of the schools and they expect nothing short of excellence of themselves and each other. In Hazlehurst, the conservator is making some necessary changes, but the turning the district around will take more than one man can do alone. The task force was charged with looking at what is working in one district and how those strategies can be employed in a district that needs improvement. The lessons learned in Leland include:

— Leadership matters. Strong leadership that expects excellence and provides the tools necessary for achieving it is crucial.

— Data drives instruction. Continuous assessment of where students are in terms of the curriculum and modification of lesson plans to address strengths and weaknesses are key elements in ensuring success.

— Teachers engage students and expect excellence. Teachers and students both have high expectations, which translate to great results.

— Parent and community involvement makes a difference. A school cannot do all that must be done to raise student achievement. Parents and members of the community have an important role to play in helping their schools succeed.

Dr. Hank M. Bounds

State Superintendent of Education