Last week the Mobile County school board approved significant changes for three of the 12 schools in the district identified as “failing” by the state earlier this year.
The 3-1 vote affirmed a $2.5 million school improvement plan for 16 facilities, which includes the conversion of Denton Middle School into the district’s seventh magnet program and the complete reconstitution of Scarborough Middle School.
Under the Alabama Accountability Act a “failing school” is one listed in the lowest sixth percentile of standardized reading and math scores in the previous year. Based on statewide assessments, 12 MCPSS schools were designated “failing” in 2015, but four additional schools “in danger” of failing were also included in the school improvement plan.
ACT testing began this week, but Superintendent Martha Peek said MCPSS has been working to improve last year’s results since August.
“We’ve had individual school improvement plans in place all year long,” Peek said. “We began testing [Monday], and we’re hopeful our schools will continue to show progress and we won’t have schools on the failing list in the future.”
While Peek said all the schools in the plan will receive extra funding and resources, three — Denton, Scarborough and Fourier-Chastain School in Trinity Gardens — will see significant restructuring in an effort to “concentrate more services in particular schools.”
The proposal to reclassify Denton as a magnet program was brought up in January, but it wasn’t without controversy. At the time, some of the community expressed concerns the board’s decisions to repurpose facilities in recent years have disproportionately affected black students. The ALSDE cites Denton’s student population as “100 percent black.”
Board members and Denton faculty have held two public meetings with community members, school alumni and parents since then, but Peek said the largest hurdle Denton is facing has nothing to do with test scores.
“Denton has been on the failing school list for several years, but we have a declining student population at Denton,” Peek said, citing a migration to the “outer rim” of Mobile. “Right now, the school is 30 percent underpopulated.”
By the start of the 2016-17 school year, Denton Magnet School of Technology will replace the traditional middle school. Officials believe it will benefit Denton’s 550 current students as well as help the 1,900 on the waiting list to join the system’s magnet programs.
Peek said the school would focus on cutting-edge technology, serving students in grades 6-8 with emphasis on “communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.”
The student population will be selected by the same lottery process used in other magnet programs; applications to the new Denton will be available beginning April 8 at mcpss.com.
As for current students, they will be transferred to nearby facilities like Burns Middle School, Scarborough and others that have yet to be identified by MCPSS. They will be able to enter the lottery for the Denton magnet program as well.
Scarborough is another facility seeing dramatic changes in the school improvement plan. Last year only saw 9 percent of students there meet statewide benchmarks in reading and math — the lowest in the system except for the 8 percent recorded at the Mobile County Training Center.
As a result, next year Scarborough will be reconfigured or reconstituted — meaning the entire staff will be reset and possibly replaced. However, MCPSS did confirm teachers will be able to apply to keep their current positions.
MCPSS Director of Communication Rena Phillips said Scarborough would also be adding 16 additional teachers and offering financial incentives for those applying to hard-to-staff subjects like math and science.
Peek said the funding would also help implement “intervention programs” specifically for middle school students, which can identify students falling behind before they move into a high school setting.
The plan also reverts back to the original idea of housing students in grades K-8 at the $14 million Fournier-Chastang School, which is still under construction. Earlier this year, the board considered enrolling only middle schoolers and busing students from Brazier Elementary School to Ella Grant Elementary School in Prichard.
That proposed change in course was criticized at the time, but ultimately the board stuck with the original plan. When asked, Peek said “the process worked like it was supposed to.”
“We had two hearings and there was a lot of information shared by parents and particularly community members,” she added. “The board and I listened to what the people were saying and decided that coming together to make this a collaborative effort with the community and parents will ultimately make for a stronger program than trying to separate the schools.”
That said, Peek did confirm Brazier will be closing its doors permanently by the 2017-18 school year, but attributed rumors of a plan to demolish the building to misinformation. Peek said some organizations have approached the system about preserving the building as a historical site, but no plans have been made. She said the system would “work collaboratively to decide on an appropriate use for the building” in the future.
Lastly, the school improvement plan will also allocate funding and resources to each of the 16 schools, which will fund additional teachers and student programming including more flexible schedules, additional behavioral support and additional tools to collect data specific to each of the 16 “Tier 1” schools.
“We’re not doing a cookie-cutter plan. Each school has its own needs, its own culture and its own particular environment,” Peek said. “We’re also recognizing that it’s not just an educational focus we need. We need to involve parents and the community in addressing the needs in these schools and to look at what a successful plan can be.”
To do that, Peek said, the system will be setting up “school councils” at each facility consisting of teachers, administrators, central office personnel, parents and community members.