Schools’ new boss praising district

Published 12:04 pm Thursday, September 16, 2010

In three weeks on the job, Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford has found reasons for optimism and excitement even beyond what she calls her normal “high-energy” temperament.

“People ask me if I knew what I was getting myself into,” Swinford said during a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, “and I tell them, yes, I did my homework. But little did I know, what I thought I was getting into, I wasn’t. It’s a whole lot better.”

The message was reiterated at a meeting this morning with the Port City Kiwanis civic group. At both meetings, Swinford outlined recent public school test scores and accountability rating results that showed gains by students and schools, and told local business owners, professionals and civic leaders about plans to continue the improvement.

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“We’re a masterpiece in progress,” she said, adding she is confident school ratings will jump a level or two next year.

Swinford said she and board members have devised three initiatives for improving schools — creating a strategic plan, launching a communitywide reading and literacy program and addressing the needs of over-age students.

Real People Read — a program to seek out volunteers to come into the schools, read to students, talk about their favorite books and encourage reading daily whenever and wherever possible — kicks off at 9 a.m. Oct. 1 in the gym at Sherman Avenue Elementary. The event will feature Mayor Paul Winfield and other community officials, and everyone is invited, she said.

Swinford told Chamber members that 688 Vicksburg students in kindergarten through 12th grade are “over-age students,” at least two years behind where they should be in school, and represent 70 percent of the schools’ discipline referrals.

“We have to do something to accelerate these kids,” she said. “The way things are now, they are just waiting to drop out.”

Swinford’s first day on the job was Aug. 23. Scores from the 2010 state-mandated tests showing improvement, especially in math scores, were made public three days earlier, and the new accountability ratings were released Friday by the Mississippi Department of Education.

Five schools improved in ratings, one declined and six held steady. The district as a whole was rated At Risk of Failing for the second year in a row, but missed the next higher rating by just one point.

“This is a great, great tribute to the hard work that’s happening at our schools and to the strong leadership there,” Swinford said of the 2010 results.

She also spotlighted the progress made by third-graders at Sherman Avenue and Dana Road elementaries, which logged big gains in achievement but are not part of the state’s accountability ratings. At Dana Road, QDI — a number based on state test scores — increased from 107 to 133, and at Sherman Avenue from 98 to 141, “the highest gains in the district,” she said.

In a separate interview, Swinford said VWSD trustees set formal goals for her at a workshop Tuesday with consultants from McPherson and Jacobsen, the executive search firm through which Swinford was recommended after the retirement of former superintendent Dr. James Price.

They reviewed the specific expectations Swinford and each of the five trustees have as she begins her work in the district, narrowing about 20 initially listed to four which will be the primary goals by which she will be evaluated, she said.

They are:

• Improving test scores

• Creating a positive image for the schools

• Bringing about parental involvement programs, particularly at the junior high schools

• Creating the necessary curriculum and staff development departments for the support of the schools as well as the improvement of test scores.

“We were all very happy with the outcomes and all pretty much saying the same things,” Swinford said.

The follow-up session, a standard part of the placement services provided by McPherson and Jacobsen, covered relationships between a school board and a superintendent, the duties of each and how differing personal styles and viewpoints can be used to come up with solutions to problems, she said. The workshop was attended by all board members except District 4’s Joe Loviza, she said.