- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi education officials are touting improvements in Tunica County, where the department took over in 2015, kicking out an elected superintendent and school board after discord.

Tunica, then rated a “D” under the state’s grading system, has climbed to a “C” even though tests and rating standards grew more difficult. That’s largely due to strong growth in math and English test scores, especially among the lowest-performing students.

Mississippi’s current rating system heavily rewards test score increases, meaning that’s the fastest way for districts to improve their A-to-F letter grades. Schools that score an F for two years in a row could be absorbed into a special statewide school district. Unlike the current takeover - a temporary interruption in local control - that takeover could be indefinite.

With 2,100 students, Tunica County school district had the second highest growth statewide in the math test scores of the students scoring in the lowest 25 percent, and was in the top quarter of districts for growth for such students in reading.

The state cited 25 violations of accrediting standards when Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency. Officials were critical of Tunica County’s special education program for failing to create programs tailored to individual needs.

Tunica County’s elected superintendent Stephen Chandler came under criticism, and discord was deep among school board members.

Margie Pulley, the conservator appointed to run the district, told Board of Education members in November that 30 teaching vacancies existed three weeks before the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

Pulley said she focused on appointing strong principals in the district’s five schools and pushing teachers to use data to monitor improvements.

“We became a data-driven school district,” Pulley said.

Pulley said the district focused on increasing test scores in reading and math, identifying the lowest-performing students and monitoring their progress. Test scores remained below state averages, but Rosa Fort High School had the highest math score growth among the lowest performing quarter of students. Dundee Elementary was No. 1 in the state for math growth overall.

Some numbers are still poor. Tunica County has the second-lowest college readiness score of any district in the state, based on low ACT scores. The district also is still working to clear violations of four accrediting areas, with Pulley saying work in special education has been the most difficult.

Tunica, like North Panola and Oktibbeha County, has been taken over twice by the state. Mississippi’s conservatorship system has traditionally done better at fixing a school system’s finances and making sure state accreditation requirements are met than making permanent improvements to academics.

Lawmakers adopted a different structure, called an achievement school district, in hopes of taking over schools and making lasting academic improvements.

However, officials with the state Department of Education are considering retooling the conservatorship system to also focus more on academics.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .


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