JACKSON, Miss. – Failing schools can flounder for years. But occasionally a school will buck the trend and turn things around. Heidelberg Elementary in Clarksdale, Mississippi was once a failing magnet school. In a year’s time, it’s made one of the biggest test score gains in the state.
But test scores aren’t the only thing on the up and up.
“The morale of the teachers as well as the students as increased 100%,” says Cindy Pennington, Heidelberg’s librarian of more than twenty years.
Her colleague, Marsha Downs says the new principal made all the difference.
“When Ms. Tyler Jones took over, everything changed,” says Downs. “Unity. We were not unified at all.”
Before Principal Lowanda Tyler-Jones came, staff say planning felt disjointed and objectives disorganized. Tyler-Jones knew she had bright kids so she began by “benchmarking” them: testing every nine weeks rather than once a year, then building and adjusting lessons as the data evolves and changes.
“Believe me that is crucial, making data driven decisions,” says Jones. “You can look at all of the data you want to look at. Your teachers can look at it, can dissect it. But still, the number one thing is getting these kids to buy into it.”
Heidelberg jumped from an F to a B letter grade in Principal Tyler-Jone’s first year. Some school data experts say the gains at Heidelberg are so striking it’s almost unbelievable. Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, says consider low testing participation.
“Typically schools where you see that kind of thing happening are trying to game the system by literally telling kids who are likely to be low performers to literally stay home tomorrow, call in sick, that kind of thing,” says Cizek.
When compared to Heidelberg enrollment number, 12% of the school’s 4th graders and 18% of its 5th graders were not tested. Having fewer, but brighter students test can inflate scores, but Cizek says that’s not necessarily what happened here: scores at small schools can swing drastically even without tricks.
“You are only dealing with a few kids,” says Cizek. “And if you can get a few kids to do better, it can make a big difference.”
Principal Tyler-Jones says they didn’t need to resort to tricks. To prove her point, she leads me to the teacher conference room. Charts and graphs with student data plastered the walls. She says you can’t succeed by hiding your weaknesses; you have to address them head on.
“This is where our weakness is right here in both language and math” says Tyler-Jones, pointing to a bar graph from a recent benchmark test.
Reading the graph, I point out Heidelberg is showing up at the bottom of the district.”Yes, in fourth grade language and math,” she agrees. “But we won’t be there for long!”
Reading scores at Heidelberg are especially low. Now, as a result, every teacher blocks out part of the day to focus exclusively on building reading skills.
Walking the halls, we find third graders are spending part of their morning being read to.
“It was at that moment they heard a shout,” reads Crystal Sheppard. “Help! Help! I’m lost!”
Sheppard pauses and asks the class, “What’s the opposite of lost?”
“Someone said ‘found.’ Good!”
Down the hall in Kindergarten, Ebony Williams is drilling vocabulary words.
“Analyze,” William says.
The students respond in unison, “Break apart!”
“Read between the lines!”
Teachers and parents alike describe Heidelberg’s turnaround as nothing short of a radical transformation. But Principal Tyler-Jones says for it to be really transformational, they’ll have to show growth after another year of data-driven instruction and exams. If all students sit for the test and scores still shoot up, then Heidelberg may be the school that not only beat the skeptics, but beat the odds as well.