| By Billy Davis
The North Panola School District is beginning its school year with an ambitious goal: a five-year plan to pull three of its schools to a Level 3 status.
North Panola Superintendent Robert Massey said school administrators hashed out the "strategic plan" at a two-day retreat in June.
The six stated goals are: recruiting and retaining school personnel, improving financial activities, communicating better with students’ parents, improving students’ academic achievement, aligning the district curriculum, and increasing student and faculty safety.
The North Panola School Board voted without comment to adopt the plan at its Monday night, July 18 meeting at North Panola High School.
"This is the first time for North Panola to have a ?strategic plan,’" Massey told The Panolian following the school board meeting.
North Panola begins the year with one high-performing Level 4 school, Greenhill Elementary, among its five schools. Elsewhere in the district, Como Elementary, Como Middle and North Panola High are Level 2.
Crenshaw Elementary is already at Level 3.
North Panola will begin its second "improvement year" this fall, a mandate from the state Department of Education for public school districts with low-performing schools.
State legislation passed in recent years established the school accreditation levels, which are determined mostly by students’ test scores.
The numbers are known as the Annual Accountability Designation (AAD), which ranges from Level 1 (low performing) to Level 5 (superior performing).
Levels 2, 3 and 4 are under-performing, successful and exemplary, respectively.
The North Panola School District, which emerged from a state takeover in recent years, has long endured a reputation for low test scores from its students and high faculty turnover.
The school district is 97 percent black, state figures show, and 81 percent of its students qualify for free lunches, an indicator of poverty-level family incomes.
The per-pupil expenditure at North Panola is $7,303, about $509 above the state average and $838 more than its neighbor to the south, South Panola.
Massey will start his third year as North Panola superintendent in August. His superintendent’s salary is $90,000 a year.
At the Monday school board meeting, the six goals were presented with specific objectives listed for each, such as addressing school safety by reducing student suspensions by 10 percent.
Asked Wednesday morning about the lack of specific plans presented to the school board, Massey later provided a listing of strategies for achieving each of the six stated goals.
The list of strategies was omitted from the Monday night PowerPoint presentation because of time constraints, he said.
Massey cited the hiring of "strong" principals at two Level 2 schools, Como Elementary and Como Middle, as an example of North Panola’s commitment to student achievement.
At Como Elementary, North Panola hired George Knox, a former principal and past bureau director for the education department’s Office of School Enhancement. He also founded a parent-teacher organization, The Justice Organization.
At Como Middle, James Flowers will serve as principal after performing those duties at Level 5 schools in the North Pontotoc school system.
At the school board meeting, Knox said the faculty at Como Elementary will work together with the theme "one team, one dream."
More than 10 Como Elementary faculty members were present at the school board meeting and were recognized by Knox and the school board.
Como Elementary jumped from Level 1 during the 2002-2003 school year to Level 2 in the 2003-2004 school year, state Department of Education records show.
State records also show Como Middle is in the middle of a Restructuring Plan after undergoing state-mandated Corrective Action during the 2002-2003 school year.
Greenhill Elementary, North Panola High and Crenshaw Elementary were all Level 3 schools during the 2002-2003 school year, state records show.
Greenhill has since jumped to a Level 4, North Panola High dropped to a Level 2 and is in an Improvement Year, and Crenshaw Elementary has maintained a Level 3.
With the Como schools welcoming new administrators, the high school is still without a principal and assistant principal despite the start of school in three weeks on August 8.
North Panola High School Principal John Sullivan and Assistant Principal Kelvin Griffin have taken jobs elsewhere, two of six faculty members to recently do so according to the school board’s July 18 agenda. Nine faculty hirings, meanwhile, were approved at the school board meeting.
Sullivan, who was NPHS principal for five years, has accepted the principal’s job at Shaw High School.
Reached by The Panolian, Sullivan said North Panola is a good school district with bright, motivated students.
"In spite of what people say, North Panola’s got a lot of good students and a lot of potential," Sullivan said. "What it needs is for (the students) to stay focused on academics."
Sullivan worked hard at instilling discipline at the high school but faced opposition from Massey and the school board, said a former NPHS teacher, who will start a teaching job in a new school district this fall.
"Discipline is the number one problem at the high school, and it frustrated a lot of people at the lack of support from Mr. Massey and the school board," said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.
Asked to respond to the teacher’s words, Sullivan downplayed the discipline problem at the high school.
"School discipline was not a great problem as far as hindering learning," Sullivan said.
Asked about discipline within the school district, Massey said Sullivan and other administrators were "backed up 100 percent" by the school board and him.