State ed boss visits, focuses on literacy

Published 12:04 pm Thursday, November 11, 2010

Students at Beechwood Elementary School are used to librarian Rhonda Hendrix reading stories to them during library period, but it was a new visitor Wednesday who opened a book, sat in the white rocking chair and read — State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tom Burnham.

Burnham had about 20 kindergartners from Melissa Rouse’s class checking out the pictures, answering questions and listening attentively to “Even Monsters Need Haircuts,” by Matthew McElligott. He even taught them about the flat-top.

The state education boss spent the day in the Vicksburg Warren School District, meeting with Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford, trustees, school administrators, local officials and community members.

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“It was a tremendous opportunity to be in the district,” Burnham said after wrapping up the day by doing his part to promote Swinford’s literacy initiative, Real People Read, which brings the community into the schools to read to students. “We’re excited about Dr. Swinford and the leadership she is going to bring here in Vicksburg.”

Earlier, Burnham named literacy as the first of several issues on which state education officials are focusing efforts. Early literacy is key to all areas of student achievement, he told board members and administrators.

Mississippi will apply for the federal “Striving Readers” grant, he said. The grant provides money to improve student literacy and build a strong research base for identifying what works in the classroom and what doesn’t.

“We need to do a better job of helping our teachers meet the needs of children,” Burnham said.

Other target issues include leadership development to provide well-trained younger administrators to step in as others retire and the environment in high schools across the state. “With the struggles we are having, we are not going to fix today’s high schools in today’s high schools,” Burnham said. “The high school itself is the problem.”

Meeting with about 10 community leaders including city and county representatives and clergy, Burnham said social and emotional problems students experience often lie at the heart of the state’s high drop-out rate. Moving some students into a career-technical program and accelerating those qualified for early college enrollment are possible solutions, he said.

He also told both the school and community groups that student, school and district accountability methods will be shifting over the next few years from performance-based to growth-based.

“It’s clearly a model that says, are we giving a year of academic growth for a year of academic instruction,” Burnham said. “That’s what education is supposed to be about.”

New assessments based on Mississippi’s adopting the “Common Core” standards for instruction at specific grade levels “will move Mississippi ahead light years,” he said.

Burnham took office in January after being appointed by the state education board a year ago. It’s his second time in the position, having previously led state schools from 1992 to 1997.

His visit to Vicksburg was engineered by former local school board member Howell “Hal” Gage, an officer with RiverHills Bank who serves on the state education board.

After reading to the Beechwood kindergartners, Burnham said many people ask him why he’d want to come back to the same job a second time.

“It’s because of the kids,” he said, gesturing toward the area where he’d read to them. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to be engaged with them.”

Burnham also served as dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi from 2004 to 2009, and has been superintendent of Henderson County, N.C., Public Schools and superintendent of Biloxi Public Schools.

“I want the superintendents to know I’m accessible to them,” he added. “I work really hard to be responsive to the superintendents in this state, listening to them and trying to help them solve problems.”