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HCSD similar to North Panola SD, but results need not be

A story by Rebecca Helmes ran in the Clarion-Ledger on March 17 about State Superintendent Hank Bounds’ recommendation that the state take over the North Panola School District–for the second time.

According to the story, North Panola, with 1,900 students, has two Level 2, or under-performing schools, and one Level 1, or low-performing school.  The district was downgraded from a status of Advised to a status of Probation last fall.  In addition, Helmes reported that “The superintendent and school board of the North Panola School District have a rocky relationship…Some of the district’s schools are in disrepair…And worse, most of the district’s children consistently underperform on state tests.”

The district has been taken over by the state once in 1996 because of financial problems. Now, it finds itself on the brink of another state takeover.

The district’s superintendent, Lucinda Carter, admitted that the district needs help and that recruiting teachers to the district is especially difficult because of “negative publicity…about its test scores….”

The situation in the Hazlehurst City School District is eerily similar to that of the NPSD.  Each of this district’s three schools are rated Level 2, and, according to test scores reported last fall, at least one–Hazlehurst Middle School–may be rated lower after next year’s results.  And, the district has been placed on an Advised status by the Commission on School Accreditation for this school year.  As in many other districts of similar status, teachers are leaving for the better-known, higher performing districts, and leaving places like Hazlehurst and Sardis to struggle just to find warm bodies to fill in.

Over the past several years here, the relationship between the school board and the person in the position of superintendent or interim superintendent has been quarrelsome while test scores have dropped, buildings have steadily declined and moral has plummeted.

We here have heard rumblings about parents, teachers and even school board members hoping for, if not praying for,  the state to take over the HCSD–which has over 1,800 students. Officially, no one from the state has held public talks with the district about an eminent takeover.  By rule, the state will not step in unless it is an absolute last resort.

And, as much as a state takeover may be sought after for the HCSD, it is no silver bullet to long-term solutions in producing better test scores and improving classroom teaching.  Nor does it deter financial woes from occurring down the road or guaranteeing that  leadership of the district will make sound decisions and get along just fine.  The case of the North Panola School District proves just that–one state takeover in 1996 is being likely being followed by another one in 2008 for many of the same reasons.  And, in the past 12 years, the classroom results have either not improved on a consistent basis or have steadily declined.

So, this district needs a long-term solution that delivers a drastic improvement in nearly every one of its parts, one that could probably be reached within five years and most certainly should be recognized in 7-10 years.  It would require appointing/electing board members with a long-term vision, selecting a tough, no-nonsense superintendent and making sound decisions on personnel and departments.  Such decisions might include eliminating low-impact positions and consolidating several positions into one to rid departments of wasteful spending. The emphasis on teaching and learning should be increased by all means necessary, even if it means athletic programs will be cut until major improvements can be sustained.  Ultimately, more good teachers will want to teach in the HCSD.  Better students will be produced and graduation rates will improve.

These ideas are just a start.  Perhaps the district’s stakeholders can come together and stand on a common, solid platform and make their demands and more specific solutions known to the board.0

Everyone here needs to keep an eye on what happens up in Sardis, MS, so as not allow the same mistakes to happen here.

Joe Buck Coates

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