Billy Davis’ column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2007

NP’s problems not kids, teachers say

Weeks before the Mississippi Dept. of Education released the blistering findings of its Leadership Accountability Audit on the North Panola School District, reports were trickling into this newspaper that yet another crop of promising school personnel were punching their one-way ticket out of the public school district.

The consensus was that such a report, if true, would follow a pitiful pattern. Why would it be pitiful? Because we’ve been down this road already.

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Motivated, big-hearted teachers and administrators are still flocking to North Panola, drawn by the challenge of enriching the lives of children in a poor-performing school district. But once they step foot in a classroom, or try to oversee rebellious staff from a principal’s post, they learn that the district’s 1,800 children are not the reason North Panola is an educational failure.  

“The problems of North Panola are not our children,” a departing administrator told me last week. “Our children are the sweetest children. They are eager to learn.”

So, what is the problem? “Personal agendas, power and greed,” was the answer.

Two of North Panola’s newest principals, Anthony Barnes and Dawn Osbon, are not returning to their school buildings in August. Barnes left a Level 5 school in Water Valley to oversee North Panola High. Osbon was a National Board certified teacher when she uprooted her family from Amory to serve as principal at Como Elementary.

And Barnes and Osbon are not alone. Before the audit report became public, North Panola was already seeking replacements for more than 40 faculty positions, a state Web Site showed. Since then, North Panola’s best and brightest have many more reasons to leave.   

What are some of those reasons for leaving?

•The state audit report described a disorganized, dysfunctional public school district led by leaders who are either woefully incompetent or pitifully corrupt, or both. That leadership gap has led to the embarrassing statistic now known statewide: North Panola passed only four of 33 state criteria that ensure the school district maintains its accreditation.

It didn’t  help matters when school board trustees publicly scoffed at the findings, an action that prompted a do-you-believe-me-now visit by the state superintendent of education.

•Four MCT2 state test booklets are missing from Crenshaw Elementary (see mention of “incompetent” or “corrupt” above).

•The school district will be led beginning July 1 by Lucinda Carter, who is currently writing a 60-day “corrective action plan” that should spell out how North Panola plans to fix its four-of-33 mess.

I personally saw the first draft of that plan, which was an embarrassing start. Carter didn’t even organize the necessary paperwork in basic chronological order and described her plans for the district in vague generalities.

If the incoming superintendent does not follow basic instructions, how can she lead a district that has reached its lowest point in a decade?

 A North Panola teacher told me last week that she is leaving her classroom after weathering 13 years as an elementary school teacher – but not the reason you might think. In that time she has worked under five principals, three superintendents and a state conservator, enduring uncertain times only because she believed she was touching the lives of the children she taught. She described North Panola as a “mission field,” because the work often goes unseen and unappreciated, and the resources to perform your job are few.

The only reason she’s leaving, she said, is that a neighboring school district where her small child attends, and which is also home, recruited her earlier this year. If not for that phone call, she would be welcoming back North Panola’s children in August for another year in the mission field.

When she made her decision to leave, she wept.

“If you’re writing about North Panola, you’ve got to think about the children,” she told me. “When my kids read the newspaper, and they know who I am, I want them to know that I love them and love the district, and let their parents know that, too.”

That’s the kind of love the Apostle Paul wrote about. Faith and hope are in short supply at North Panola, but at least there’s love, even from those who are punching their tickets.

And where there’s love, there’s hope.