- Associated Press - Sunday, January 7, 2018

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Kristina Pollard was looking for inspiration. That quest led her in 2015 to accept a job as principal of Earl Travillion Attendance Center in Hattiesburg.

“The superintendent (of Forrest County School District), Mr. (Brian) Freeman, called me, and he shared the struggles of this high-poverty, low-performing school,” she recalled. “I’m probably the ninth principal in 12 years.

“He said he needed a ‘turn-around’ principal, and I said, ‘I’m challenged. I’ll do it.’”

Pollard, 43, gave up her job of two years as a principal in Lamar County School District and headed to Palmer’s Crossing. At the time, the school was ranked an F and had scored 263 points out of 700 on the Mississippi Academic Achievement Program.

“When I took the school, I had to scroll to the very bottom (of the state rankings), and there was Earl Travillion,” Pollard said. “The way my superintendent worded it, we were at the bottom of the failing schools.”

Another who accepted a challenge was Dena Ford, principal since 2016 of Rawls Springs Attendance Center, also in the Forrest County School District. When she came on board, Rawls Springs was ranked an F and had a score of 256. Just the year before, it had been a B, with 320 points.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Ford, 37, said. “The teachers and I knew we had a lot of work to get back to where we were.”

Pollard and Ford were recently honored by Forrest County School District for their efforts to pull their schools up in the state rankings. In two years, Pollard has moved Earl Travillion from an F to a D and increased its points by 35. In one year, Ford has pushed Rawls Springs from an F to a B and increased its points by 94.

“I think they are both very progressive principals who are working extremely diligently for the success of their students,” said Gina Gallant, the district’s chief operations officer. “They are both on a mission to be sure their teachers are effective, and they’re looking for different avenues to provide for student instruction.”

Pollard had a big job on her hands. Before she could even begin to think about improving academics, she had to tackle attendance, discipline and the campus environment.

“(The first year), if it didn’t tie to that, we didn’t talk about it,” she said. “Coming in the door, I met with every teacher. I met with children. I met with parents.

“I did a needs assessment on everything. I attacked culture and climate.”

Pollard went door-to-door in Hattiesburg, talked to local politicians and convinced 130 people to come to campus to clean up and paint. Now she has established a mentoring program staffed by the Southern Miss Men of Excellence group, a college and career series anchored by Trinity Episcopal Church and gotten volunteer help from Pine Belt 360.

Pollard said year two began the academic push.

“The children showed up the first day on time and excited - that’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said. “Now, we could focus on teacher strategies and put together a stringent professional development plan.”

Pollard said as teachers began honing their craft, everything got easier.

“If we are engaging children, we don’t have to worry about negative behaviors,” she said. “If we are truly teaching to the (state) standards, we don’t have to worry about teaching to the test.”

Freeman said Pollard was the principal he had been seeking to make a difference at Earl Travillion.

“We were looking for a principal who had proven success and someone who could change the culture and put the focus on what was best for the children and involve community groups, and she was able to do that,” he said.

Freeman said the school has had a checkered history.

“Earl Travillion has always kind of been one of our up-and-down schools,” he said. “When Van Jones was principal in 2012, he got it up to a C, but then he went on to another career.

“We went through some transitional changes and the school dropped to an F. Now, we have battled back to a D. Kristina Pollard has been instrumental in getting the school on track, but it takes everybody. Those teachers down there have done a good job.”

Pollard has raised the percentage of Earl Travillion students passing the third-grade reading test from 60 percent to 91.7 percent. She hosts nights where parents can learn how to help their children read at home and understand what they are learning in school.

“If a parent walks in with six kids, they go home with six books,” she said.

Pollard is preparing to start something revolutionary at the school. She applied for and won a $2.1 million school improvement grant from the state Department of Education that will allow her to extend the school day three times a week by two hours for the next four years.

The grant will pay for afternoon snacks, a Chrome book for each student and busing. Earl Travilion was one of only two schools in the state to receive the grant.

“This is going to make a huge difference,” Pollard said. “This is not just about improving test scores. This is going to give children something to do and keep them out of trouble.”

Students at Earl Travilion begin their extended day Jan. 8. At the same time, students at Rawls Springs will be working hard to maintain their B ranking.

When Ford came on board last year, she had to tackle a student body that had grown discouraged.

“We focused on building an environment where students felt like they could be successful,” she said. “We build rapport with the students. We greet them, and we let them know we care beyond their academics.

“We know what’s going on with them at home and in the community. Once you have that rapport, the students rise to the teachers’ expectations. They want the teacher to be pleased with their work, and they worked very hard last year.”

Because Rawls Springs was classified by the state as an at-risk school, Ford had a mentor - former district assistant superintendent Jennifer Ward.

“She did a lot as far as guiding me through the thought process, making sure if I had an idea that it would be successful based on her prior experience,” Ford said. “Most of the time she was my sounding board. As a new principal, she would give me some of that insight I had not yet learned from experience.”

The school targeted writing after getting zero proficiency in writing the year before. Officials also set aside 30 minutes every other day for reading. Voluntary, after-school tutoring was offered, and about 10 percent of the student body took advantage of it.

“We knew from the beginning the school wasn’t an F school,” Ford said. “We talked all year to the students about how we were going to show them what you really are.

“They knew we were watching what they were doing, and in the end, it paid off substantially.”

Teacher Jennifer Landry said Ford helped the teachers be their best.

“When we dropped to an F, that wasn’t a reflection of where the kids were,” she said. “When Ms. Ford came in, she sat down with us and asked us, ‘What do we need to do to grow these kids?’ and we gave her our ideas and she let us go with them.”

Fifth-grader Dalton Watson said he was really happy when the school got the B.

“I’m excited to see if we can do it again this year,” he said.

Ford said the goal for this school year is to keep focusing on making the best effort possible.

“When all is said and done, as long as you’ve done your best, we’ll be expecting similar results,” she said. “We always want to push to do better, but I don’t want my teachers or students to think their work only comes down to going to that A.

“If you’ve done everything you can to the best of your ability and that gives us another B, we’ll keep growing from there.”

Pollard wants to see her school keep growing, too, and she’ll do everything in her power to make that happen. It’s hard to predict where the school might land with a school day extended by two hours.

One thing Pollard does know is the atmosphere at Earl Travillion has changed for the better. When she first came on board, she stood at the bus line and held her hand up to give a high five to the students arriving for class. They had no idea what she was doing.

“Now it’s routine to them, and they understand I’m going to greet them,” she said. “They are happy to come to school and work for us.”


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