District analyzes plans after forums

Published 12:13 am Saturday, November 3, 2012

A possible consolidation of the Vicksburg Warren School District’s secondary schools drew the most comments, with lists of pros and cons coming from more than 250 people who attended the community forums last month, according to breakdowns released by the district.

Supporters said consolidation would help reduce the cross-town rivalry, lead to a reduction of building-maintenance costs and bring more success to the district.

Opponents said the number of students at the school would be too great, the costs of building a new school would be prohibitive and students would lose opportunities in extracurricular activities.

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Most responses were vague, with little suggestion on how to implement ideas ranging from laptop computers in classrooms to raising the district’s graduation rate to 85 percent from the current rate of 56.2 percent.

VWSD Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Swinford said district officials are looking at what programs can be implemented immediately while setting a plan to address other requests.

“When we looked at the list, we’re looking at the district’s transformation plan,” Swinford said. “We came up with a couple of other ideas that we really need to be pursuing.”

As for suggestions that could be implemented at relatively low costs, Swinford said student-instruction would be a priority.

“There are some concerns that we’re not doing anything about after-school programs,” Swinford said. “We’re doing some tutoring, but I think as a district, we need to look at that more closely.”

District 1 Trustee and Board President Bryan Pratt also saw opportunities for the district to address some of the concerns, stimulated by a group of questions on areas ranging from consolidation and proposed classroom offerings to technology and what the district should look like in 10 years.

“It was great to see such diverse viewpoints,” Pratt said. “I found it to be very interesting that, with some of these things, we can implement them pretty quickly at relatively low costs. Things like more honor classes — we can identify teachers for that and implement some of those suggestions pretty quickly.”

District 3 Trustee Jim Stirgus Jr. said addressing the district’s low graduation and high dropout rates is a priority.

“With the 10 lowest graduation rates, we’re ranked fifth in the state,” Stirgus said. “With the highest dropout rates, we’re ranked third. If you can conquer those two obstacles, our grades will see improvement.”

For learning experiences and opportunities, popular requests included more unique, out-of-state field trips, a districtwide prekindergarten program, year-round tutoring, job shadowing, increasing hands-on learning experiences and more after-school programs.

For technology skills and tools, access to smart boards, classroom computers and additional computer skills programs topped the list. Parents also requested that homework assignments be posted and allowed to be submitted online.

When asked where they want to see the district in the future, respondents overwhelmingly said they wanted to see VWSD achieve a Highly Successful rating or STAR district. Last year, the Mississippi Department of Education replaced the old rating scale that ranged from Star rating to At Risk of Failing with an A through F scaling system. For 2011-2012, VWSD received a C, or Successful, rating.

Higher graduation rates, up-to-date technology, a drug-free, safe environment and freeing counselors from paperwork to allow them to work more with students were also popular responses.

Swinford said that, in addition to seeing what can be easily implemented, the district will start looking at the costs for the more expensive suggestions.

“There were some concerns about the textbooks and about how often we readopt textbooks,” Swinford said. “And, of course, the technology is a big concern. At the end of the day, we should be able to supply them, but all this costs money. In the mean time, I’m going to bid out for many of those things, not necessarily to buy, but just to price it.”

Swinford, a former science teacher, noted some of the textbooks are outdated.

“With obsolete books, we’re looking at our libraries,” Swinford said. “Some still have Pluto listed as a planet.”

Pluto was downgraded from planetary status in 2006.

Swinford said that besides the district’s role in providing up-to-date learning materials, the state legislature must provide adequate funding for requirements and the Mississippi Association of Educational Professionals.

“I need the Legislature to do their job to find the funding and fully fund MAEP and PreK,” Swinford said. “Award money to the district that will go towards Common Core. If not, they need to stop giving us unfunded mandates. I know they gave us a chunk of money last year, but at the same time, the cost of retirement went up and now, Common Core comes in with no extra money.”