By Victoria Boatman
The Lafayette County School District recently won recognition as one of the top 15 districts in state-wide standardized testing in algebra, biology and English.
To celebrate the school’s achievements, teachers and high-scoring students gathered on the the field at the football game at Lafayette County High School last Friday night.
Their recipe for success has been a myriad of things, but teachers said one of the biggest factors is the administration.
“The best thing for students is a great learning environment, and that’s what the administration is doing for us as teachers and for the students,” Spanish teacher Lohida Bautista said. “We can show up to work and know our administrators are working with us. They’re active at making us efficient and giving us the tools that we need. The performance of our school is a reflection of the leaders and the staff.”
Teachers say another factor is the exposure that Lafayette County students receive from living in close proximity to a university.
“Being in a city like Oxford exposes you to things like college football,” said algebra teacher Jacob Lehenbauer. “Even in that one small thing, you’re getting exposure to people from other states, people from other parts of the country, etc.”
Students have also benefited from the educational diversity their teachers posses due to the university’s proximity. Algebra and calculus teacher Virginia Cornelius is one such teacher who came to Oxford when her husband began working on his master’s degree at the University of Mississippi.
“Because we’re tied to the university, we have teachers with very high content knowledge,” said Cornelius. “We have teachers who have their master’s. We have teachers who have taught at the university and who choose to teach at the high school. We have teachers with very strong content knowledge, and not just in math, but in science and English and everything.”
Teachers say significant teacher content knowledge coupled with Lafayette County residents’ socioeconomic standing are the biggest predictors of success for LHS students.
“As a statistician, everything is socioeconomic,” Cornelius said. “It’s a joke that nationwide we compare Mississippi to Massachusetts, when how you do on a test is your socioeconomic status, and then second after that is teacher content knowledge.
“Relative to the rest of Mississippi, we don’t have an affluent group (at LHS). But it’s not like some places in Mississippi that are hand-to-mouth.”
For Cornelius, this sets LHS apart and allows it to be one of the top schools in the state.
“There’s all sorts of teeth in the prediction model,” she said. “It’s not just how the kids do in the standardized test. It’s the attendance rate, etc.”
Cornelius said it also highlights a severe inequality across the state, such as areas like the Delta, that lack this type of exposure or elevated socioeconomic standing. Last year, Lehenbauer taught in one of these areas in Marks, Mississippi.
“The biggest difference is the community attitude,” he said. “Teachers aren’t that different. Students aren’t even that different. At Lafayette, it seems to be that this is what you do. You know you’re going to graduate high school. Whereas in Marks, it seemed like a secondary priority, or not a priority.”
Some teachers are also concerned about testing changes.
“The Mississippi Department of Education leased a company to make the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment, which is going to be the new standardized test,” Lehenbauer said. “But their entire deal just fell through. So now, there’s an emergency call to Pearson to make the test.
“The previous PARCC test was tested in various counties across Mississippi, but now they’re going to an entirely new company to make that test. So that’s a big deal. We’re in the middle of the year, and we don’t know what standards we’re teaching to or how we’re going to be assessed, which is frustrating.”
Cornelius said there’s a lot at stake for teachers and students across the state if the PARCC is only around for the next year.
“What’s a lot scary about this PARCC assessment coming up is that we don’t know what it looks like,” she said. “We don’t really know how it’s gonna work. We don’t know what the minimum passing score is. We don’t know whether or not this is still going to be around one or two years after this.”
With a lack of certainty coming from the state, some teachers feel it’s hard to decide what exactly the MDE wants from them and students.
“If you think about the creative minds of come out of Mississippi – a state so small – it’s mind-boggling,” Cornelius said. “So, maybe, we don’t want to standardize test our kids to death.
“I mean, because this is what these very elite colleges are realizing, is that they’re admitting these kids with double 800s on the SAT, and these kids are basically robots. They don’t have any sort of soul. They don’t have any sort of passion, and they’ve never had to fight for anything. This is a major issue.
“So is it such a good idea for Mississippi to be following Maryland and Massachusetts and trying to be like that? Or should we really grab hold of what we are and try and nurture that?”