Schools ‘coach’ says failing high schools will turn around this year

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By Angye Morrison

Gadsden County Schools Superintendent Reginald James says his team is facing a tough “season” during the new school year, which kicked off Monday. But this coach says they’re ready.

Although James said the elementary and middle schools are on track, the county’s high schools, East Gadsden and West Gadsden, still pose a huge challenge.

“Our biggest challenges are basically our two high schools,” James said. “Our high schools presented a unique challenge to me as a superintendent.”

James believes that education begins in the formative years and that any efforts to affect real change must be made on that level. The situation with the high schools is that there are so many students who must be remediated.

“Once a person’s educational foundation is formed, it becomes very difficult to change. Our elementary schools have really improved, and that’s because we implemented uniform reading and math programs. These have brought about some progress and laid a strong foundation,” he said. “Our education in this county at the formative level is as good as you can find anywhere. We didn’t become the top writers in the Big Bend by luck. It was because we were working with the students and it is a credit to the teachers. Our elementary schools make me smile.”

James said the data shows that this year, the elementary schools should produce a record number of “A” grades.

“My goal is to have at least six ‘A’ schools. This is realistic based on the numbers,” the superintendent said.

The county’s two middle schools, Havana and James A. Shanks, both “C” schools, should each earn a “B” this year, James said.

“Our middle schools are poised as a strong group of students move into them. Both are certainly capable of improvement,” he added.

The high schools are also poised for improvement, James said, under the new leadership. At West Gadsden High School, Juliette Fisher Jackson, formerly at Shanks, stands ready to move the school forward with a new plan and new staff members.

“She has a history of moving troubled schools,” James said. “She has always been able to get schools to improve. We put her at Shanks and they moved to a ‘C’ and it was tough because there were so many students there. I feel confident in saying West Gadsden will not fail under the leadership of Ms. Jackson.”

At East Gadsden, Ruthe Hardy has taken the helm. James said her expertise lies in understanding quality instruction. As the former Teacher Advancement Program state director, Hardy came to Stewart Street Elementary School, a former double-F school, and led the effort to turn the school around. She will bring that same effort to EGHS.

“She brings something different to East Gadsden,” James said. “The staff will meat in teams and analyze the quality of instruction to students, as well as what’s being taught. Ms. Hardy will bring changes to the school that will turn things around.”

James said the district has been successful in raising the percentage of students graduating. The percentage of students graduating formerly hovered in the low-40s. It’s now over 56 percent and rising. James said he is hoping for 60 percent this year.

One of the key factors James says will make a difference this year in the high schools is the focus on reading.

“This is where our greatest challenge lies,” he said, adding that the newly-implemented reading programs in the high schools is more up to date and will help students want to read while focusing on problem areas.

“This program really attacks weaknesses,” he said. “I think we have a stronger plan to deal with the challenges of the upper continuum of our educational system.”

James has been asked by local residents about the involvement of the state education department in the district’s schools. He said the state is not in control of the schools, but has offered assistance in the form of instructional feedback and monetary assistance.

“All the state department can do is offer assistance and resources. If you have a challenge and someone offers to help you, you should say sure, and that is what I did. They will only be working with the high schools, and it’s a partnership I agreed to,” he said, adding that the department has identified some resources for school improvement funds, which the district will receive. State officials will also be providing feedback on the instruction at the high schools to the superintendent, so that the instruction can be analyzed and improved.

On the elementary level, Abbye Dixon is the new principal at Chattahoochee Elementary, and James said she brings a lot of enthusiasm to the job.

“They’re just three points from a ‘B.’ I’ll be watching that school very closely,” he said.

Other administrative changes include Delshauna Jackson, principal at Gretna Elementary; William Blitch, principal at Gadsden Central Academy; Sylvia Jackson, principal at Havana Middle; and Lisa Robinson, principal at Stewart Street Elementary.

James said he feels confident that these changes in leadership will move the schools forward. He added that the teachers had a very productive summer, receiving excellent training from some of the best educational experts in the area.

“As the coach of the team, I can say we are ready. Don’t be surprised if we have a breakthrough year. This is going to be some kind of report card,” James said.