The Leflore County School District has faced challenges but has “some of the brightest and best students in Leflore County” and is making progress, says Dr. Ilean Richards, interim superintendent.

Richards was on the panel Saturday during the Every Student Succeeds Act Community Conversation, a public meeting organized by Parents for Public Schools of Greenwood and Leflore County.

Richards discussed the district’s situation after the Oct. 19 release of  state accountability grades. The district received an F, determined by test results and other factors. All of its schools received F’s except the high schools. Amanda Elzy High School received a C, and Leflore County High School received a D.    

Given its 2017 scores, Leflore County is now the lowest-scoring of 143 school districts in the state.

However, Richards said, “Don’t let people fool you by saying, ‘Well, this is a struggling school district; there are no bright students.’”

Richards said she did not feel that the Commonwealth gave the district fair coverage concerning its accountability grades.

“What pained me so is when the Commonwealth said that Leflore County is the worst school district in the state,” Richards said. “We have the lowest growth rate, but we didn’t have the lowest achievement rate.”

She also felt that the paper should have reported that the district is fully accredited and not on probation.

The district has been under conservatorship since  October 2013. A state takeover was ordered after the district received grades of F under the state accountability model for two  consecutive years. Richards replaced the first conservator, Robert Strebeck, in January 2016.

The district’s success is measured using a growth model for accountability established by the Mississippi Department of Education that requires the district to do better than the year before. Richards said the district did not grow because it excelled at high rates in 2016 and did not exceed last year’s growth.  

A large issue the district has faced — and a factor Richards links to lower grades — is teacher retention. She said when she came on board as conservator (now interim superintendent), she was not aware of the teaching issue in Leflore County.

As a newly appointed conservator, Richards said, she was expected to hire 88 new teachers and take charge of two high schools, two junior high schools, three elementary schools, one vocational school and one alternative school.

“We came out of  2016 partially because we had low scores from PARCC last year,” she said, referring to a set of tests designed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a multistate consortium from which Mississippi has since withdrawn.

“Leflore County has never had three schools that were rated as C,” Richards said. “We did that and we only had one F that year, but as that summer of July 1, I didn’t even know if I was going to have enough teachers to open the school.”

However, she said, “as of August, now we’ve got the staff.”

The interim superintendent hosted 15 reading workshops to help prepare teachers to be classroom ready.

Richards said she was able to retain most of her teachers from the past school year and is working hard to continue training them.

“These are things that I inherited. I don’t complain about them,” Richards said. “I don’t get in the paper and talk about them. This is the hand that I was dealt, and I am going to play it. “

Richards ended her speech comparing the school district to those in America’s Revolutionary War and Civil War.

“We didn’t always win the battles, but we won the war,” Richards said. “In Leflore County, we will win the war.”

The Greenwood and Leflore County districts are scheduled to merge effective July 1, 2019, but state Sen. David Jordan, a retired teacher, said Saturday that he will push for a delay.

“If the state cannot bring up a school district — Leflore County School District — ... why should they put that burden on Greenwood?” Jordan said.

Legislation ordering the merger of the two districts was passed in 2016. Initially, it would have required consolidation by July 1 of this year, but Jordan helped lead an effort to delay the effective date by two years.

Jordan said he will approach both the Greenwood City Council, on which he represents Ward 6, and the Leflore County Board of Supervisors to support his initiative to delay the consolidation.

He said Richards and the Leflore County district need more time to improve. He said his argument stems from past legislative decisions to hold off on district consolidation.

Although Jordan said he believes conservatorship has no time frame, Richards was  expected to run the district for only a year and a half. She stayed longer after the original date for the merger was delayed.

Dr. Jennifer Wilson, superintendent of the Greenwood Public School District, also gave an update on the district’s progress after the accountability scores were released.

The district received a C grade for state accountability.

Wilson updated attendees on grants the district received including a Pre-K Collaborative Grant. It is a three-year $750,000 grant to improve student achievement for early learners. There are also the School Improve Grants, which will help Greenwood Middle, Greenwood High and Threadgill Elementary schools. This grant will give these students  extended learning time and after school opportunities, Wilson said.

Wilson  also spoke about a $50,000 donation to the district that will improve workforce readiness skills of Pre-K parents.

The district is also working to improve the growth of  the district’s teacher program. Wilson said that 28 teachers in the program are working on Praxis I and II tests to become fully certified

Attendees listened to state education leaders such as state Rep. Willie Perkins, Dr. Kalanya Moore, Mississippi Valley State University director of student teaching and MAT program; Nancy Loome, president and executive director of Parent’s Campaign in Jackson, and Latanya Calhoun, special programs director for the Leflore County School District.

Contact Lauren Randall at 581-7239 or lrandall@gwcommonwealth.com.

The original version of this article incorrectly reported the names of the tests teachers take for certification.

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