Teachers feeling ‘anguish’ over school restrictions

Published 11:47 am Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Open dialogue on anguish Vicksburg Warren School District teachers said they are feeling took over the second installment of the “listen and learn” public forums Tuesday at Vicksburg High School.

About 50 people, more teachers than parents, attended the nearly four-hour public meeting moderated by Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Duran Swinford. The final meeting will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Grove Street School.

Numerous issues arose, but the centerpoint of discussion was what teachers said was a high level of exhaustion and distress felt this year because of new requirements.

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“The rigidness of the schedule is not flexible,” said Sherra Barnes, a sixth-grade teacher at Beechwood Elementary. “We as teachers don’t have the freedom to pull that light out from students who almost have it because we’ve been told to cut that off at a certain time and then turn that back on at a later time. Some of the decision-making needs to be given back to teachers.”

Barnes said she believes the administration understands her feelings, but the 18-year educator said she is unsure of what the outcome will be.

Swinford, who is in her second year of a three-year contract, said she understands teachers are overwhelmed with new districtwide initiatives such as the 90-minute reading block and the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports discipline guidelines, but was adamant the district will stay on the same path.

“I know it’s difficult when so many things are being thrown at you, but at the same time, they are the right things,” she said. “We can allow that (freedom) as soon as the district gets to a position in which it is out of any type of risk and it’s consistently progressing.”

VWSD was rated this year by the Mississippi Department of Education at “Academic Watch,” the fourth label on a seven-label scale. It is two notches above “At Risk of Failing,” a rating it had held for two consecutive years. The district’s QDI, or Quality of Distribution Index that is derived from state test scores, attendance rates and other factors, is 135 out of a possible 300.

“Everyone is overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s no different at Central Office than from the teachers. We get overwhelmed when we keep hearing from the state that they can take you over because you’re “At Risk of Failing.” Right now, the focus is getting out of “Academic Watch.”

Warren Central Intermediate and Vicksburg Junior High, both labeled this year as “Low Performing” and last year as “At Risk of Failing,” were reviewed by MDE this month because both were at risk of being taken over by the state. Results from those audits will be available by the end of November.

Swinford said teachers are distressed because of miscommunication between them and the administration.

“I think there is some level of validity to their concerns because the communication is not clear,” Swinford said. “We’re going to look at how we’re saying things and maybe we need to look at how we’re delivering the information. I have to make sure we’re all speaking a common language and delivering the same message.”

Other topics Tuesday night included student discipline, professional training, old and new curriculum standards and class offerings.

More teacher support groups, or professional learning communities, will be formed in the spring as a way for teachers to collaborate with one another, Swinford said.

Vivian Velazquez, who attended as a parent and as a teacher, agreed teachers are under tremendous amounts of pressure, but added all of the new initiatives are needed for positive change.

“It’s exhausting, but I see it as necessary,” said Velazquez, a Spanish teacher at VHS for 20 years. “I like the fact that (Swinford) is open to listen to us. There are things we were supposed to have been doing in the past and we were used to getting away with doing less then. Now we have to do more. Maybe it’s too much too soon.”

While some of the attending teachers, including Barnes, said the genesis of the problems is the teaching initiatives, all agreed the forums positively serve as an open line of communication to the administration.

“These forums serve as a vehicle for them to communicate directly with me,” said Swinford. “I had parents speaking, teachers speaking up about their feelings and concerns. I can tailor my work around those issues because now I have direct knowledge. Hopefully, as a result of these conversations, people can feel that I’m approachable.”

Public meetings to discuss the results from these forums will be scheduled in the spring.