Nearly a year into the job, Mobile County Public Schools Superintendent Chresal Threadgill has already made changes to how Alabama’s largest district operates and is looking to make more in the future.
Last year, after a number of schools in Mobile were deemed “failing” by the state of Alabama, an effort was launched to evaluate the feasibility of a city school system. While it was financed and driven by private citizens, the effort was spurred — at least in part — by Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
As Lagniappe has reported, those efforts were scrapped not long after Threadgill and Stimpson began meeting regularly. Last week, Stimpson appeared alongside Threadgill at a Mobile United forum, where he doubled down on his support for the new superintendent.
“After getting to know Chresal Threadgill, we think the solution to the education problems in our city is sitting right here,” he said. “He’s here for all the right reasons, and he has a bold vision of what needs to happen to make changes in the school system.”
Heading into the 2019-2020 school year, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) is coming off a year in which a number of schools saw academic improvements and increased scores on the school report cards released annually by the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE).
The system-wide graduation rate also rose slightly to 87 percent, and the Class of 2019 left school with more than $159 million in scholarship offers. Those positives are things Threadgill has highlighted, but he has also acknowledged that MCPSS still faces a number of challenges.
Despite the bright spots, nine schools were identified as “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act last year — meaning they ranked in the bottom 6 percent of statewide reading and math scores. Improving those scores is one of Threadgill’s top priorities, but recently he said there’s no simple solution to the “systemic issues” that impact underperforming schools.
“We can say it’s leadership at the schools, we can say it’s inadequate teachers, lack of resources, poverty, mental health, lack of parental involvement — that’s a lot of variables, and there is no magic pill to turn failing schools around overnight,” Threadgill said. “What I can tell you is, by doing the same thing over and over again, you’re going to get the same result.”
Starting at the top
Threadgill has previously said he believes in addressing challenges from the top down, and one of the things that’s already changed during his tenure is the organizational structure of some of the top divisions in the MCPSS central office.
“I’m not the type to go into the schools and get onto the principals and the teachers when we haven’t done what we’re supposed to do in the upper levels,” Threadgill said. “So, we’ve started the process of restructuring and reorganizing the central office, which, as I’m sure you know, is not a popular thing to do.”
That shakeup of top staff members has taken shape in a number of ways, including some mandatory transfers. According to MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips, some employees who had worked in the central office have reverted back to previous tenured positions at the school level.
Not all of those adjustments were voluntary and Philips said some were appealed. Last year, a smaller group of long-time administrators opted to leave the system for a $20,000 retirement-incentive bonus, which, according to Philips, is saving the system more than $1 million a year.
While his early efforts have focused on the key divisions that oversee teaching and testing, Threadgill has said he’s willing to restructure any division he believes could be operating better.
“We have some new faces, some new energy and we had to switch some people out,” Threadgill said. “Those are all tough decisions when we’re dealing with people, but when I think about what I’m doing at night, I ask: ‘Is this what’s best for my [students]?’ And these decisions become much easier.”
In general, school officials don’t discuss personnel decisions, and it’s also not uncommon to see a number of transfers at the end of the year in a system this size. For those reasons, it’s unclear exactly how many staff changes may have occurred because of restructuring.
The biggest internal overhaul has been within Curriculum and Instruction, which is now called Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TLA). More than just a name change, the reorganization has brought leaders in several areas that previously worked independently under one umbrella.
Professional development and training supervisors are now working directly with administrators whose focus is academic performance. The TLA division has also integrated classroom technology coordinators, library specialists and supervisors of specific subject areas.
The idea is that, by working with each other from the beginning, administrators can use the experience they bring to the table to develop individualized resources to address specific problems and to prepare and support principals and teachers throughout the year.
A ground-level example of that collaboration might include reading coaches working to incorporate reading standards into social studies lessons or special projects and classroom lessons being designed from the ground up utilizing the latest technology MCPSS has.
Threadgill has spoken a lot about “being prescriptive” and not using “cookie-cutter” solutions to address problems at schools that may not have the same issues. Under the new organizational structure, the TLA division staff members are the doctors prescribing those remedies.
“This will help us provide a menu of options for teachers and principals of schools where deficiencies are identified,” TLA Director Michele McClung said. “We can create or customize what they need to help them continuously grow, and it will be our job to come up with new ideas and solutions to help academic scores continually improve.”
McClung and others working under the TLA umbrella did note public education is always evolving to keep up with what students need to learn to be successful, adding that things changing doesn’t necessarily mean previous approaches were ineffective.
“We’ve all poured our heart and soul into this system for many years,” Amanda Jones, coordinator of professional learning, special projects and innovation told Lagniappe. “It’s not about what was wrong before, it’s always about how can we continue to do make things better.”
Another change Threadgill initiated was establishing a “Coordinator of Transformational Improvement” position. Currently, that’s held by Monica Motley, who spent seven years as the president of the Alabama School of Math and Science before coming to MCPSS.
Motley was brought on board specifically to work with schools not meeting their academic goals.
That includes schools on the state’s “failing” list, but also others that may have previously been on the list but have since improved. Motley said administrators also target elementary and middle schools that lead into high school programs not performing up to standard.
“I think one of the differences is that we’re in a supporting role for those schools,” she said. “We don’t want [teachers and principals] to feel like we’re coming down on them and saying: ‘It’s your job to get the scores up!’ We’re here to support them, to work with them and to get their feedback.”
Motley doesn’t call them “failing” schools, which is a sentiment Threadgill has also expressed. It may seem silly, but Motley said the negative connotation from that kind of brand can impact everything from students’ morale to the recruitment of high-quality teachers.
“A name makes a difference,” she added.
According to Philips, Threadgill has tried to help bring highly qualified teacher into those “hard to staff” schools by offering financial incentives for those with a certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in their subject areas. The system has also become more aggressive about recruiting new teachers out of colleges around the state.
However, because education works on the prior year’s data, there’s not much that can gauge the effectiveness of some of the recent changes. The current structure of the TLA division is only a few months old, and the improvements last year were based on MCPSS’ performance in 2017.
While teachers are preparing for a new approach to curriculum and training in 2019, they’ll also be getting ready for an entirely new standardized test being developed by ALSDE.
The Alabama State School Board hired the Data Recognition Corporation to develop a new testing system last summer, and MCPSS has been a part of piloting the new exam. It will be the fourth test the state of Alabama has administered to its students since 2012.
McClung said her staff is already working on professional development and other resources in order to help teachers prepare for those tests when they roll out in 2020. She said the goal isn’t to teach the test but to make sure what teachers do in the classroom is preparing students.
“The purpose of any assessment should really be for us to determine what a child knows and what they’re able to do, but oftentimes a test just by format can get in the way of that,” McClung said. “So, we’re pulling together with the assessment team until the time they fully merge with us to determine how we best prepare our administrators and teachers for what’s to come.”
Threadgill also floated the idea of high school magnet programs, which has historically been a controversial subject in Mobile. Magnet schools don’t have designated attendance zones, select students through a lottery system and typically focus on a specialized educational theme.
There are currently seven MCPSS magnet programs, and they are routinely among its highest-performing schools. According to Threadgill, John L. LeFlore Magnet High School is a magnet program “in name only.” It’s also not listed in information about MCPSS magnet programs.
In 2017, MCPSS administrators proposed a plan to convert Murphy High School into a magnet program, but it failed to gain enough support among members of the Mobile County School Board. Still, Threadgill was direct about his desire to revisit the issue at some point in the future.
“It is a vision of mine to have an option for one or two high school magnet programs,” he added.
Threadgill didn’t name any potential high schools that might be candidates for magnet programs, and he also said it would take time to evaluate how a magnet for students in grades 9-12 would impact the existing Signature Academy programs at MCPSS high schools.
It takes a village
Stimpson has cited improving public education, reducing crime and addressing the lack of affordable housing as some of the biggest challenges facing the city. He’s also said those things have contributed to Mobile’s historically stagnant, and more recently, declining population.
Even with his endorsement of Threadgill, Stimpson has maintained that the exploration of a city school system in 2018 was important because MCPSS administrators and the school board “needed to realize that citizens just aren’t satisfied, and we’ve got to do better.”
However, one of the things that has grown out of the new relationship between Threadgill and Stimpson has been a discussion about ways the city government can help support MCPSS by supporting other aspects of the community that can contribute to poor academic performance.
“Some children are facing significant challenges. They’re showing up at school unprepared and, unfortunately, many aren’t living in a household where there’s somebody encouraging them to do better,” Stimpson said. “We’re not sure what the answer to that is, but we can’t just sit here and pound on [MCPSS], because in our community we’re not doing the things we need to do to support those children and families who need an extra lift so that they can be prepared.”
Speaking at the Mobile United forum last week, Stimpson said there were a number of things the city can do to indirectly help MCPSS by helping young people and families in Mobile.
He cited the Youth Empowered for Success (YES!) program, which helped 500 young adults and teenagers in the city or enrolled at MCPSS schools connect to skills training, summer internships and paid, part-time jobs this summer alone.
Stimpson also said the city could help the school system through its Parks and Recreation facilities. There are plans to extend hours at city facilities and partner with outside organizations to bring in programming that ranges from athletics to arts and tutoring to financial literacy.
However, the city believes it can make the biggest impact by continuing to push for more affordable housing options through the Mobile Housing Authority and by addressing issues of crime and blight in communities that have historically been underserved.
Denise Riemer, director of social services for MCPSS, said that could go a long way toward helping some of the school district’s most vulnerable students — including the 6,700 who currently meet the federal definition of homelessness.
“The number of homeless children or families with children who are experiencing a lack of housing security and stability is continuing to rise, not just here but around the nation,” Riemer said. “I’m hopeful that, working with the housing authority, we’ll be able to get units open and maybe expedite the process, because housing stability is a big piece of family stability.”
There are currently six MCPSS social workers who work with thousands of students and families, though there has been some discussion of adding to that. Still, Riemer said her staff is able to multiply its impact through partnerships with community and civic organizations.
Riemer said she’s happy to see discussions about how the city and the broader community can add to that support. She said her staff handles cases involving students with much more pressing concerns than making good grades, and some of those students do attend schools that have struggled academically.
In fact, most of MCPSS’ “failing” schools have high rates of poverty. While that can certainly have an impact, Riemer said a child’s circumstances at home don’t determine how they’ll perform in school, adding that every MCPSS student is unique.
“There is some overlap there, but there are also kids in situations you or I have never experienced performing at the top of their game,” she said. “Many feel, and kind of know intrinsically, that education is that jumping-off point and is a way to get them out of their current situations and they utilize it.”
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