What makes Marion County thrive? Great public schools

By JOSHUA CAMPBELL,

There is a ton of pressure on everyone involved when it comes to school ratings. From school boards to administrators to teachers and to students, the strain doesn’t escape anyone. But it was that same pressure that ignited the turnaround of Columbia Elementary School, which increased from a “C” school in 2017 to an “A” school in 2018.

Principal Robbie White said he had an idea that the “A” rating was coming before it was announced. He knew the scores of the school, but the state was unsure of what it would set the parameters at. White had to bear the burden of knowing the school may be an “A” school but not being able to tell the staff.

“It was exciting, but I was also very unsure of whether it was going to hold up,” he said. “We were right there at the cutoff.”

It was Superintendent Jason Harris who broke the news to the staff, and the teachers were extremely excited following all the long hours.  

“It’s a good feeling to know the hard work shows up in the test scores,” Interventionist Ashlee Montgomery said. “Teachers work hard no matter what, but it doesn’t always show up in the test scores because there’s so many other things that impact a child’s success in school. When the test scores show for everyone to know — the community, the administrators, the state department; that’s what people look at — everybody was excited.”

The difference maker for Columbia Elementary was figuring out and understanding where it needed to focus its attention: Which students are struggling with what skills?

“It’s about impacting a kid. It’s not about getting a score. If we get the score, great, but that’s a byproduct,” he said.

White said when dealing with students directly prior to testing, the staff would go over how they tested previously and where they think improvement could be made. He added he believes it had a huge impact on how hard the students worked and performed.

“Every student set a goal. ‘This is what I want to try to attain as far as the performance level on the state assessment.’ They all knew where they were and where we wanted to be,” he said.

One of the things that makes the school’s success so impressive is that it performed during a serious transition year. The third grade came over from the primary school to the elementary school and was one of the key reasons the school improved.

“That particular group of kids performed exceptionally well, and we were extremely fortunate the staff that came over with them from the primary school did an exceptional job,” White said. “They came into a brand-new environment and just hit the ground running. They made things work as flawlessly as it could have work being in a new place with new administration and new expectations.”

Montgomery said the change forced herself and others to grow. One of the biggest differences was that at the primary school the teachers taught every subject to their class, but the elementary school uses “team teaching,” where teachers are tasked to teach specific subjects only.

“It was a relief that what we did worked and it paid off,” she said. “To see the fruits of your labor, sometimes you don’t get to see that because you could plant a seed and it takes years for that to show up. When you see those results and you know they knew it and understood it and weren’t afraid but confident, it’s a relief. They get the credit, though.”

The school impressed upon the students the importance of testing continuously, and it wanted to give them a day to relax a little bit the day before testing began. That led to White himself being perched in a seat mere feet above ice cold water with each student taking three shots at a small target to remove him from his seat and into the water.

“We tried to give them a little decompression time to say, ‘Hey, it’s game time. You’ve put in the work in practice and you’re going to do great. Let’s just get your mind focused and let you relax a little bit,’” he said.

White added the school picked the coldest day of the spring to do the dunking booth, and he wasn’t sure it was ever going to end but that it was a fun experience. That sacrifice he made was important because he believes it’s good for the students to see that the principal is on their side and willing to do whatever it takes.

“Our school slogan is, ‘Whatever it takes,’ and if it takes me getting in the dunking booth when it’s 40 degrees outside then I’ll get in the dunking booth.”

The school also did intense boot-camp-like reinforcement on the skills students learned the first three 9 weeks, and the staff honed in on what needed to be reviewed prior to testing. White used another sports analogy to summarize the efforts.

“We put in the practice, then we looked at the scouting report, which was what we were expecting to face, then we prepared for it,” he said. “The dunking booth was kind of our walkthrough where we got our mind set.”

Each student has a math and an English teacher that met with them and went over their strengths and weaknesses. But the role of interventionist is perhaps as important as any in the school. The interventionist spends one-on-one time with students or with a small group of students who need help in the same subject matter and is able to spend more time going over specific steps and identifying the root of confusion for students struggling to match the standards.

Right now that position is filled by Montgomery, the Columbia School District and Columbia Elementary School Teacher of the Year, who White said does a phenomenal job, but it was Abigail Arnold who held the position last school year while testing occurred.

Montgomery said the school took one of its benchmark tests in December, and the vast majority of students in the intervention program grew a full level, an example of the program’s importance.

“Most of the students we worked with showed leaps and bounds worth of growth. At the 90th percentile and the 98th percentile, they grew,” she said. “The ones that don’t grow as much you have to look and see, ‘What are we doing? What do we need to adjust to make sure they grow more next time?’”

The mindset from administration down to the staff and the students was that Columbia Elementary was better than the “C” rating it earned the year prior. White said the entire staff deserves credit for preparing the students to succeed.

“Our activity teachers were pulling kids during their intervention time working on academic skills; everybody was involved. Not just with academic skills, but our support staff here took kids that had attendance issues and discipline issues and spent some quality time with that kid. ‘Hey, what’s going on with you and how can I help? We want to keep you out of the office and in the classroom and in school and not at home.’ Everybody on the campus (played a role).”

While the A was celebrated, White said that he doesn’t want anyone relishing in the rating too much because it was by the grace of God it earned an A and everyone should remember how much disappointment there was as a C school.

“You don’t want to get too high. You just want to keep continually doing what’s best for the kids,” he said. “If you get a great label, so be it.”

Although a lot of great work went into the rating, White recognizes there is a ton that could still be improved and the same methods that worked in 2018 may not work with the 2019 class.

“A group left; a group came in. There are always challenges. The state of Mississippi is raising the standard for the reading assessment this year, and that’s for our third graders,” he said. “Last year we had a 98 percent pass rate on the reading assessment, but if it had been the new criteria (a 3 out of 5 is now considered passing instead of a 2) we would have only had an 86 percent pass rate.”

The 86 percent would still be ahead of the state average, but White said that doesn’t mean there is any reason to let up.

And nobody at Columbia Elementary School has any plans of resting on the superb mark it has set for itself.

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