R.D. Harris: Back in the saddle at MHS
The Star: What's on your short list of things that need to change right now at MHS?
Harris: I'm not so sure about "change," but what I would like to do is get off to a very good start. I've only been on the job eight days. School starts Thursday and teachers come Tuesday.
So all I've been doing is preparing for the opening of the school looking at schedules and test scores and that kind of thing. Right now we are preparing for the school year. That is taking all of my time and attention.
I have immediate goals, intermediate goals and long-term goals at Meridian High School.
The immediate is to get the kids back in and get school started.
One of the intermediate goals is that the school district has to have a foundation and it doesn't start at the high school. It ends at the high school. We have got to put programs in (the elementary and middle schools) and make sure all of our curriculum is vertically and horizontally aligned.
We need to make sure we give the teachers the help they need. We also need to look at promotion and retention policies. We must have bench marks and we are not going to promote kids in the elementary schools who have not mastered skills.
Long-range goals are that I have ordered material for an international baccalaureate program, which is a rigid academic program. A lot of people say they want a world-class education, well, this gives us one. It is a program that has a primary and a middle school part to it, as well as high school. It gives a stratified gifted program that is rigidly difficult.
The Star: You worked for the state Department of Education when the school-by-school accountability model was being developed. Under that model which factors in "improvement" with objective benchmarks it is possible for a school whose students never perform at grade level to be deemed "successful" as long as the students have made a year's worth of growth since the last time they were tested. Explain that.
Harris: Just because I worked at the state department, it doesn't mean that I always agreed. This model was very confusing when I was there. The concept is to give schools a little bonus for getting better, but the other part of that is they are penalized for not making enough growth.
For instance, if one year, 90 percent of students passed reading, and the next year, 91 percent passed, they will be penalized because the state department says you have to make five deferential points over what you made the year before. So if you make 91 percent, you are not recognized.
What they are doing is trying to encourage the schools to progress. That is the intent of the model and I'm sure over the years the model will be refined. There are areas that need to be looked at, but it gives us a starting point to improve education statewide.
The Star: You say Meridian is demanding quality education, but they voted school bonds down twice. How do you interpret that?
Harris: I think they voted it down because it wasn't clear in their minds what was going to be done with the money. If I had been here, I would have said, Let's don't put $5 million into the building at MHS. Let's look around Meridian to see if we can find enough land to have a world-class high school, where we could put in computers and have parking.' That would have been an attractive thing for Meridian and the business community.
You cannot attract businesses here with a high school and a school system that is failing. Everybody wants the school system to improve and we, as educators, need to give them a plan. The businessmen cannot come in and educate our students …
The Star: What is your opinion of Tech Prep?
Harris: I think it was a good idea that was implemented too strongly and too much hope was put into it. It is unfair for me to talk about it because I was not exactly a proponent of Tech Prep when I was at the state Department of Education.
I think you take ideas and you run off with them, but sometimes you have to evaluate them. We put money after money after money into that.
I was wondering what would happen if we could take that money and lower the pupil-teacher ratio. That is important to teachers; they can only do so much. Tech Prep gave us false hope, in my opinion.
The Star: Have the softer disciplines and the arts been diminished because of the focus on tech prep?
Harris: All of the fine arts have. That is what Meridian used to be so excited about years ago. We used to have one of the best physical education programs. We had modern dance and they don't teach that anymore. The art program has remained and the choral program is back, but there were things that worked that were dismantled. Research shows that kids who do art excel in academics.