SARDIS, Miss. – At North Panola High School in Sardis, teachers lead class with an air of confidence, a majority of seniors plan to graduate this year and, with six wins already, the Cougars are having one of the best football seasons in the small town’s recent history.
Adding to this positive energy is the Mississippi Department of Education‘s release of state test scores. As of Oct. 17, North Panola, which has 392 students, has officially risen in status from a C school to a B school. For an institution that was near failing in 2009, the result is a significant milestone in a district that came out of conservatorship in July 2014.
North Panola’s four-year principal Jamone Edwards is quick to praise his staff, especially teachers hailing from the University of Mississippi’s Mississippi Teacher Corps. More than one-third of North Panola’s 35 teachers are current or former members of the Teacher Corps, including three of the school’s instructional coaches in English, science and social studies.
“The Teacher Corps’ impact can’t be understated at North Panola,” said Edwards, who received a master’s degree in educational leadership from UM in 2010. “Every one of our subjects that are tested by MDE is staffed by the Teacher Corps. They do a fantastic job of sending us new teachers. If you bring us a new teacher who has strong content knowledge and passion, we can teach them the rest.”
While significant and lasting change often comes slowly in education, veteran teachers at the school say North Panola is a dramatically different place than it was four years ago.
Since May 2010, the graduation rate has risen from 49 percent to nearly 72 percent. In subjects such as Algebra I and U.S. History, students’ test scores surpass state averages and they’re not far behind state averages in areas such as English II and Biology I. Last year, North Panola graduates received college scholarships valued at more than $2.2 million, up dramatically from $200,000 in 2010.
Teacher Corps alumna Hannah Olivier is a five-year science teacher at North Panola. In her time, she’s witnessed a rejuvenation of the school, especially in students’ attitudes.
“Students take school very seriously now,” said Olivier, the school’s science instructional coach. “Students are interested to try new things. A lot of kids are asking questions about colleges. It’s a very different culture here then when I started. It’s really great to see kids encourage each other and compete with each other to try and break into the top 10 or top 20 spots in their class.”
Teambuilding and retaining quality teachers have been a key parts of North Panola’s advancement, Edwards said. This means setting up accountability models, supporting good teachers and creating a productive learning environment.
“In my first year here, I was a lead teacher and I saw what was and wasn’t working. … I saw that the teachers did not feel supported, student behavior and teacher practices needed addressing” he explained. “The first thing I did as principal was to draw a hard line on what is and what isn’t acceptable for teachers and students. We have to make sure the environment is conducive to teaching and learning.”
Tactically, North Panola has built itself up by establishing a series of “safety nets.” From freshman year, students identified as at-risk in reading in junior high are enrolled in an extra 40-minute remediation period during the school day. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the school offers afternoon tutoring.
Once a semester, classes are paused for a parents’ visit day to ensure that every parent has a chance to sit down with North Panola teachers. This fall, more than 200 parents came to meet with faculty on Oct. 20.
When a student fails a required test for graduation, they are enrolled in a 50-minute remediation class called Learning Strategies to focus on a particular content area. For example, when 17 students failed to pass their state English II exams in 2011, the school recruited head football coach Derek King, a Teacher Corps alumnus, to lead the remediation period. As a result, 15 advanced to pass their exams.
Founded in 1989, the Mississippi Teacher Corps is supported by the state Legislature and provides some of Mississippi’s most demanding secondary classrooms with new teachers every year. Over a quarter of a century, the program has fine-tuned a process for training college graduates to teach and succeed in critical-needs settings where high teacher turnover can be the norm.
For the last two years, the program has placed record groups of 32 new teachers into schools throughout Mississippi. To date, the program has trained more than 600 teachers, most of whom are still involved in education across nation.
The Teacher Corps has placed teachers at North Panola for the last eight years; however, the relationship between the school and program has improved greatly in the last four. The Teacher Corps’ administration seeks to place groups of teachers within schools they believe have supportive principals.
“Nothing works in a school unless you have a principal who supports teachers,” explained Teacher Corps co-founder Andrew Mullins. “That means visiting their classrooms, giving advice and backing them up. Jamone has done an excellent job in seeking out our teachers and supporting them. For first-year teachers, every day is a learning experience.”
An alternate route program, the Teacher Corps is a two-year commitment that culminates in a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UM. Acceptance into the program is highly competitive and includes a full-time teaching job at a critical needs school and full tuition to UM.
A self-described data-driven leader, Edwards provides no guesswork as to his vision for the future of North Panola High School: the school’s B ranking is a step toward becoming an A school. He hopes to continue his relationship with the Mississippi Teacher Corps.
“Superintendent Cedric Richardson has brought great stability to North Panola,” Edwards said. “My goal for North Panola High School is to have a 100 percent graduation rate, and a 100 percent passage rate on our state exams and to be an A school.”