NP Conservator

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Conservator: ‘acceptance of mediocrity’ has hurt students

By Billy Davis

On the day that North Panola’s 1,800 students were going home for the summer, the school district’s conservator, Bob Strebeck, was preparing for their return in August.

What students left behind last week – and what they will return to at summer’s end – is a school district with test scores so poor that they triggered a state takeover. But Strebeck has a plan, beginning with back-to-basics training for teachers and administrators this summer.

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“There is an acceptance of mediocrity with no high expectations,” the conservator said of North Panola’s classrooms.

 “My philosophy is that any child can learn as long as we provide for that child the necessary instruction, and the necessary place for them to learn that is safe and orderly,” he said during an interview conducted on May 22 in his office.

Strebeck’s question-and-answer interview with The Panolian follows.

Panolian: Now that North Panola is under conservatorship, what will be happening within the school district this summer?

Strebeck: We will immediately begin the training that the Dept. of Education – and other entities that we’re going to call in – are going to provide. Teachers will be trained in the areas of depth of knowledge and rigor, and classroom management and techniques for engaging students the entire class period.

Principals will be going to the Principals Institute at Millsaps College in June. They will also be going to other training provided by the Dept. of Education over the summer.

We are also initiating the Barksdale reading program in all elementary schools, so those teachers will be in Jackson during the first of June to receive training.

Panolian: The “depth of knowledge” is being stressed due to the MCT2, the new state test, right?

Strebeck: That’s correct. We’ve got to get our teachers acclimated to the use of that, moving from level one, which is “recall,” to more rigor in what they teach.

Panolian: And that’s not just at North Panola. That’s being pushed statewide.

Strebeck: Correct.

Panolian: What is the Principals Institute?

Strebeck: It’s a seven-day, in-depth workshop to help them be a more effective principal. It’s a team-building effort with other principals. The goal of a principal is to be the instructional leader – that’s his number one goal.

Panolian: How much of what you’re describing – the training, the Principals Intitute – is standard training for Mississippi’s school districts. Or is that strictly tied to the conservatorship?

Strebeck: I can’t answer what North Panola has done in the past, but I do believe that every district is doing that – or attempting to do that.

Panolian: After being on the job now for about two weeks, are you able to offer your observation of the school district?

Strebeck: Obviously I see the need for this kind of training. That seems to be obvious. That’s not a negative reflection on teachers and administrators – it’s just something that must be worked on if we’re going to make a change. I’ve been in every school and stuck my head in almost every classroom, and I can certainly see the need in those areas of training that I just mentioned.

I also want to make sure that the school district is financially prudent, so I’m thinking about restructuring the organizational chart of the district. That is preliminary. There’s nothing that I can give you about what that will be, but I am probably going to do that. When I say the organizational structure, I’m talking about who answers to whom and making that more streamlined and more effective.

Something that will make this district more efficient – and I’ve sent this memo out – is that we’re not going to pay twice a month. We’re going to return to one pay period a month. Starting July 1, they will get one paycheck per month.

Panolian: That’s pretty standard for most school districts, isn’t it?

Strebeck: It’s standard. It is. I understand the situation with people who are on an hourly wage, but they’re going to have to budget and manage their money a little bit better. It can be done.

Panolian: Can you put your finger on why North Panola students, especially those at Como Elementary and North Panola High, which are the two Level 1 schools, have scored so poorly?

Strebeck: I can put my finger on it: teachers who are not teaching what they’re supposed to be teaching in the manner in which they’re supposed to teach.

There is an acceptance of mediocrity with no high expectations. And that has been consistent apparently for several years, because if you expect things from students and demand them, more than likely they’re going to try to appease you by reaching that level of excellence.

That is one thing we’ve got to do: we must address that expectation level. We’re not going to accept just a 70, or accept just an 80. If you’re able to make a 90, we expect you to make a 90.

There just hasn’t been – from what I can see – any change in the way they do things in the classroom. It’s just the same – year in and year out. And here’s a revelation: three years ago, if you were doing what you’re doing now and you weren’t successful, why do you think you’ll be successful in the subsequent years?

Panolian: How do you address the sensitive subject of a struggling minority school district. I’m sure you’re aware of the No Child Left Behind adage “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Strebeck: That goes back to expectations. My philosophy is that any child can learn as long as we provide for that child the necessary instruction, and the necessary place for them to learn that is safe and orderly.

I understand that there are a lot of opinions about socio-economics, and the status of students and their ability to learn. That goes back to the home, where the training begins at home where parents need to work with their students to get them ready for school.

Parents need to understand that if they send their child to school, they don’t stop being a parent. I’m a parent 24 hours a week, seven days a week.

Parents are going to have to understand that they’re going to have to step up and be parents.

Panolian: For a long time people have watched North Panola from the outside and asked, “What is going on in that school district?” Now that you’ve observed it, can you answer that question?

Strebeck: Inconsistent leadership.