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Planning, Seminars Lay Ground for NCLB

Knowing that NCLB deadlines would come soon, Pascagoula (Mississippi) School District officials held professional development sessions and public meetings about the law, so staff and the community knew what to expect. Included: A program to help paraprofessionals become highly qualified.

According to district officials, the staff members of the Pascagoula (Mississippi) School District have a good understanding of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requirements, largely because numerous professional development sessions and parent meetings were scheduled on NCLB. The superintendent presented NCLB sessions at civic club meetings, churches, and school board meetings, and the district developed an informational brochure about NCLB for parents and community members. An article about NCLB appears in the district newsletter each quarter, and the superintendent has met with the education reporters from the two local newspapers to explain state and federal accountability.

IMPROVING STUDENT PERFORMANCE

In anticipation of the requirements of NCLB, the Pascagoula district has focused on improving student achievement for the past two years. In 2002-03, the district began the "Superior Expect It!" campaign. The Mississippi state accreditation system rates schools at levels of performance from 5 to 1: superior, exemplary, successful, under-performing, and low performing, and all schools are expected to become superior schools. The pressure is on everyone to make sure that all students succeed, and with this academic focus on every learner, the results are beginning to look good in Pascagoula. Five of the schools are rated at Level 5, which is the superior rating, six are rated at Level 4, and five are at Level 3. Each of the schools studies the assessment data; school staff members develop a plan to improve student achievement on a child-by-child basis, and address any deficits with specific subgroups. The instructional decisions of both teachers and principals are becoming more data-driven.

Teachers concentrate on student mastery of the state curriculum and standards, and principals monitor classroom instruction in regard to content and teaching strategies. The four district curriculum specialists conduct "walk-through" visits in classrooms, and the observations are discussed with teachers and principals. Recommendations are made for professional development activities for teachers who are having a difficult time with content or teaching techniques. Follow-up visits are held as necessary, and the curriculum specialists also conduct quarterly grade or subject area meetings so that teachers can discuss their challenges and successes.

The Pascagoula school board recently dedicated $500,000 for extended day and extended year programs at schools. Students who scored at the minimal or basic levels on the Mississippi curriculum tests or the subject area tests required for graduation have been placed in after-school tutoring programs and recommended for the extended year program.

Class sizes in grades K-1 have been reduced, and district monies have been set aside to build additional classrooms to reduce class sizes in grades 2 and 3. The district goal is to have a pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 in all classes in grades K-3 within three years.

PARAPROFESSIONAL QUALIFICATIONS

As with the district teaching staff, the number of paraprofessionals in Pascagoula who do not meet NCLB requirements is low. Of the 180 employees, only 32 did not meet the requirements in 2003, and most of these are either pursuing an associate's degree or planning to take the Work Keys tests. The Mississippi Department of Education adopted the ACT Work Keys tests in Reading for Information, Math Applications, and Writing to assess the competency of paraprofessionals. Title I funds are used to pay for tutors who provide intensive instruction for the paraprofessionals who plan to take the tests. The classes are provided three afternoons each week for two months prior to test administration, which takes place four times a year.

However, there are paraprofessionals who are nearing retirement, and although they are highly effective employees, according to district staff, they were not interested in taking college classes and they were terrified of taking a test. Their experience and expertise was needed, so staff decided to help them with intensive tutoring provided by teachers. Both test-taking skills and higher levels of math and writing skills were addressed. This strategy has worked well, and it has given the paraprofessionals the confidence they need to proceed with meeting the requirements.

STILL ISSUES TO RESOLVE

But as Pascagoula officials learned, there are numerous complexities that states and districts face in assembling accurate data about teacher qualifications and other issues.

In midsummer of 2003, the Mississippi state department of education notified the Pascagoula School District about district teachers who did not meet the NCLB definition of "highly qualified." The list, according to district officials, contained numerous errors, but even after several phone calls to the office of licensure, the district was still without an updated list in late fall. The department of education also posted school and district report cards on its Web site. Along with state accreditation ratings, the report cards listed detailed adequate yearly progress (AYP) information, graduation rates, and teacher quality percentages.

This information, however, was posted without the revisions, corrections, or clarifications from local school districts.

According to the district report card on the state department of education website, 97.6 percent of the 360 core academic teachers in the Pascagoula School District are highly qualified. The number who are not is small (13 of 600 total teachers), and these appear to be special education and middle school teachers who teach in content areas but hold elementary licenses.

Class sizes in grades K-1 have been reduced, and district monies have been set aside to build additional classrooms to reduce class sizes in grades 2 and 3. The district goal is to have a pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 in all classes in grades K-3 within three years.

SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

To read the full report, see A Look Inside 33 School Districts: Year 2 of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Share Your NCLB Strategies

Education World's Working With NCLB feature highlights schools or districts with stories to share about how they are implementing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. If you have a Working With NCLB story to share, send an e-mail toEllen Delisio.