Autry outlines needs for Meridian schools
By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
July 7, 2003
Sylvia Autry, who took over as Meridian's interim public school superintendent on July 1, wants the community and the school board to know she has goals for her time as chief executive of the district.
Autry, who will head the school district until the board hires a permanent superintendent, discussed those goals and other issues during a meeting last week with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: How many prekindergarten programs are currently in the district and what are your plans for that for next year?
Sylvia Autry: Seven. We have expanded it by one. Our problem is space and funding. You know, we don't get money from the state for prekindergarten, but Meridian has recognized the powerful need.
What brought that to our attention was six years ago, we started giving every entering kindergartner, before we had a 4-year-old program, an early prevention of school failure and it measures their level of language development. It measures motor skills and other things, but the most important thing is it tells us their level of language development because reading and language are dependent on that.
We saw district-wide, over 75 percent of our children were coming with a profoundly low level, not moderate. When three-fourths of your children in kindergarten are not ready to learn, that tells you you've got to do something.
So we visited states and areas in our own state that had successful prekindergarten programs. We looked at curriculum, we talked with people from the state department and we developed one prekindergarten class, like a pilot. We have tracked that class and since then we have grown to seven. We track them and we call them our cohort group and we track their performance.
Our first group finished fifth grade this year and we look at how the children that had Meridian public schools prekindergarten compared in reading, language, math, attendance, discipline referrals, special education referrals and gifted education referrals. We compared how those that had it fared with those who didn't.
In every category, except for discipline, and that was close, children who went through the Meridian public schools' 4-year-old program exceeded the others, and they continue to do that. That is one piece of research that supports the fact that we need to educate our youngest learners. Each one of these goals mesh with the school board's declaration of new direction.
The Star: Is that federal money or local money that funds prekindergarten?
Autry: Federal money.
The Star: What is difference between reading and language?
Autry: Reading assesses vocabulary and comprehension mainly and decoding skills language is the application of those skills. Can you punctuate sentences correctly? Can you find the misspelled word? We teach it as a package, but it is tested as two separate tests.
The Star: Are you encouraged that students in the district will progress?
Autry: I think the things we've got in place should work. Research says they do. We've got to do a better job, though, of formative assessment. That means you don't wait until the end of a year to determine if a child has understood everything. You test periodically and we have not done that well in this district. We've got to a better job.
In other words, by Christmas, every teacher in this district should know (how) their children are going to fare on that high-stakes assessment. We have programs in place now. We have a new software program that will allow teachers to build tests that mimic the MCT (Mississippi Curriculum Test). We've got to do a better job of that.
We've got to somehow find ways to expand pre-k. A big portion of our (federal) Title I funds are tied up in salaries, and we have to find a way to free up some of that money or find money outside of Title I.
I am very excited with the board's new direction and the What Works committee. I think we were very thorough. We took some flack because we talked about programs that were people's favorites and their babies. But if they are not getting the results we must have in this district, then we have got to look at other things.
Success for All has come under the gun. We will be looking closely at schools like West End (Elementary) who have not shown gain like they should and they have had Success for All for four years.
Success for All says that after your third year you should see performance converted to test scores, and we haven't seen that. So we are going to look at the test scores that come back for all of the schools that are using models closely this summer. And if they are not getting the results we need, then those schools will be used to determine what we do need.
If Success for All isn't working, then what do we put in its place?
I'm encouraged by all of it. I hope Meridian gets the right superintendent. I think we've got to regain the excellence. I've been around a long time and I remember Meridian schools in their glory days. I believe firmly that we can be there again. We can regain excellence and I think we've got to regain the trust of the community, that your schools … have the knowledge to teach your children, and your schools will be open with you.
I think we've kind of skirted in the past. You know, if a reporter came to see us about test scores, we only talked about gains maybe we didn't mention that in 15 tested areas we were below the state average. I don't know if it was ever a deliberate attempt to withhold, but I think we have got to put everything on the table and say this is where we are. I wanted goals for two reasons: To help give the administration and the teachers focus, and to say to the board and the community that we don't have the luxury of maintaining the status quo. I don't want anyone to think we are treading water this year.
The Star: Can you talk a little bit about accreditation levels?
Autry: We will be getting test scores back in a couple of weeks, but those scores will not tell us what accreditation level has been assigned to that school. That will be mid-August. Based on our test scores, we will get a preliminary accreditation level for each school.
Then in early September, we will get that federal part of "Did you meet your adequate yearly progress?" And all of that coupled together will give the school its accreditation assignment.
In other words, a school like Witherspoon if those children show growth over a year, then that will be very much in their favor. In the past, we just compared scores, whether it was Poplar Springs, West End or Witherspoon. But this levels the playing field, it recognizes growth.
The Star: Do think leveling the playing field is a good thing?
Autry: I think it's important that a school and its staff be given some credit. For example, at Witherspoon, if you take kids with a language development of a 2 year old, and if those children make a gain to first-grade level, then that is a significant gain although achievement-wise they will not gain in the model. They will be a Level 3. If the growth factor were not in there, they would always be a Level 1.
The Star: Does calling a school a Level 3 year after year because at-risk kids are making progress give a false sense that everything is fine?
Autry: No, because (with) the other factors, like how did these children achieve compared to the state, you will show that they are behind. You may be pleased that they made the growth, but you will see that they are still way behind other schools in the district and the state. And did they reach adequate yearly progress probably no.