OKOLONA – First-year Okolona Superintendent Dexter Green said he has been overwhelmed by the work that needs to be done with the district, but feels recent test scores show Okolona schools are headed in the right direction.
“Yes, I have been terribly busy and we have made some tough decisions on some very tough issues,” said Green. “But I like a challenge and we are seeing some success.”
The Mississippi Department of Education released school test scores Aug. 21 from state accountability exams given during the 2012-13 school year. The data and its comparison to the state average can be found on Page XX of today’s Chickasaw Journal.
Okolona has the lowest dropout rate and best graduation rate of any school district in Chickasaw County.
Okolona schools had a 9.4 percent dropout rate compared to Houston at 13 and Chickasaw County schools at 12.9. Okolona had a 73.9 percent graduation rate compared to 70.7 at Houston and 67.9 at Chickasaw County.
“Graduating students and sending them on to bigger and better things is the ultimate goal of the Okolona School District and any school district,” said Green. “Anytime we can stop a student from dropping out, we have done a lot to improve our community.”
Green laid a lot of Okolona’s success with those two numbers at the feet of teachers.
“It only takes one teacher or coach to reach a student and get them motivated to graduate and stay in school,” he explained. “I have told our teachers we aren’t out to change the world, just the life of one student at a time.”
Green said Okolona does have attendance problems and he is working with the Chickasaw County Attendance Officer to make sure students from elementary to high school are in class every day.
“I want to remind parents that school attendance is compulsory in this state and I am asking that it be enforced in this community,” said Green. “If students are not in school they are not learning and that is reflected in scores. That is a community problem.”
Green said the problem is more apparent at the elementary school level and is evident in test scores.
“We have a lot of room for improvement with test scores at the elementary school level,” said Green. “We have students who are performing on math tests but we have problems with language scores.”
Green said Okolona has a number of community efforts to improve reading scores and he pointed to Baby Steps and Parents for Public Schools as two programs that are helping.
“I came to Okolona from a very successful elementary school and every study I have ever seen said reading to young children has a dramatic effect on their level of learning,” said Green. “We are urging parents and grandparents to do it and if they need help, to please contact their child’s teacher and we will connect them with these organizations or do what we can as teachers and administrators to help.”
The state has passed legislation requiring third graders to read at their grade level next year or not be promoted. Over 80 percent of Okolona Elementary school children were at the minimal or basic reading levels last year.
“I found our school libraries in terrible shape when I came here and we are working to improve that,” said Green. “We have also obtained literacy coaches from the Mississippi Department of Education who will work with out students and we have partnered with the Center for Excellence in Literacy and Instruction (CELI) to help our teachers and our students.”
Green said CELI was a key part of his leading Dundee Elementary school to become a Star School when he was principal there. He also said LaShonda Hoskins has been named the new principal at Okolona Elementary.
Green said there are concerns at the middle school level particularly with sixth grade testing where 70 percent of math scores were minimal or basic and language scores stood at 50 percent.
And Green said changes have already been made with teachers who are not performing.
“When I saw our test scores I discussed them with our school board at length,” said Green. “Changes have been made. That’s the toughest part of my job or for my school board. That’s all I would like to say about that.”
Green also pointed to incentives passed by the school board to reward teachers who teach students to perform.
“Teachers whose students perform consistently at a B level are eligible for a $1,000 bonus,” said Green. “Teachers whose students perform at an A level are eligible for a $2,000 bonus.”
Green pointed with pride to Okolona High School test scores
“Our high school basically carried this district and I am so proud of our teachers,” said Green. “We scored well in both Algebra and biology.”
Green said Christopher Hill is the new Okolona High School principal and he has been charged with keeping the ball rolling.
“When I came here last spring, I noticed a lot of order and discipline at Okolona High School,” said Green. “Teachers were in control of every classroom and students were learning.”
Green urged the community to show their support for Okolona schools.
“Parents need to monitor the grades of their students and help them with their homework or at least contact their student’s teacher and make sure it is getting done,” said Green. “I am also seeking businesses and institutions in the community that want to partner with us.”
Green said he is looking for internships with local businesses and mentors who can get involved in the life of a child.
“We have contacted both Toyota and United Furniture about ways our Vocational Education Center can train students for the automotive manufacturing industry and the furniture industry,” said Green. “There are other industries in this community that will soon hear from me about partnering with this district.”
Green said he hopes Okolona’s success will be reflected in school and district rankings set to be released later this month.
Three years ago the Okolona School District was placed under state control for both academic and financial failings. The school board was abolished and the superintendent’s post filled by a state conservator with broad powers to correct deficiencies.
The district came out from under state control last summer and a new school board, made up of Jerome Smith, William Bailey, Nancy Sullivan, Sara L. Jenkins and William “Bill” Stewart was seated in December. Green was hired as superintendent in April.