DEAN/What a good grade means
There is not just good news to report from the Madison County School District, there is amazing news. The State Board of Education has officially approved the Accountability Results for the 2021-2022 school year, and our district has received an “A” rating. It may seem like this is business as usual, but I would challenge you to reflect on what this score means for our community. This grade is the result of our teachers and administrators tireless work to meet the high academic expectations of the community, despite the extra obstacles and challenges resulting from COVID. This report is the first glimpse into academic progress since the 2018-2019 pre-pandemic school year, and the response of teachers, administrators, parents—and most importantly our students—is nothing less than heroic.
The last few years for public officials dealing with the effects of the pandemic have been challenging to say the least. I worked as Governor Barbour’s education advisor during Hurricane Katrina and remember working with superintendents and the citizens on the Coast who in the days after the storm rightfully expected school to return to normal as soon as possible. There was a knowable end state we were working towards and we knew what recovery looked like. Not so with COVID as there were seemingly no end to the uncertainties that had to be figured out with no previous point of reference as the guide. For example, I was Chairman of the State Board of Education in March 2020 when the pandemic seemed to first register as truly a global health crisis. I remember receiving a call from the then State Superintendent suggesting that we might have to close schools for a few days or even a week or two. My initial response was that sending children home for the rest of the year felt shocking and there was no way the virus was that bad. It quickly became apparent after several intense days of discussion with the Governor’s Office and the State Department of Health, though, that attempting remote learning at scale for the remainder of the school year was our only choice. We waived many of the state laws and the federally mandated assessment requirements for the remainder of that year. And then we prayed for the health of safety of our frontline workers and asked for the public’s grace as we worked through solutions.
To Congress’s credit, state funding was made available to help mitigate the crisis for K-12 education first through the CARES Act and later the ESSER fund which specifically began to focus on learning loss. The State Legislature allocated some of this money to provide a tablet or laptop to every student in Mississippi to begin bridging the digital divide and support virtual learning as best as our school districts possibly could. The Mississippi Department of Education competitively bid, procured, programmed, and distributed 325,000 devices in four months. This was an incredible effort on the part of MDE whose success should be neither overlooked nor forgotten.
Some schools chose to continue virtual learning in the Fall of 2021 while others decided to move to a hybrid model. Despite the still-looming uncertainty and spiking numbers, the Madison County Board of Education made the decision to go back to full in-person school with federally required COVID protocols in place. These protocols formally and totally ended after several months as numbers of positive cases began declining and the public health effects of the virus were better understood.
During this recovery period, Madison’s district leadership became hyper-focused on mitigating any learning loss at the individual student level. The sense I got from central office was that there was no way they would let the pandemic have any greater impact on schools than was absolutely necessary. Programs were created that never existed before. Teachers took on new roles in the district that supporting the blending of technology and traditional learning methods while tutoring session were provided after school.
And what were the results of this effort to address any learning loss and accelerate the unending to increase students’ academic performance? Madison County School District’s accountability score increased over its last reported pre-pandemic accountability score. It went up! Not only did it go up but we ranked sixth out of 138 school districts. The five that are ahead of us have less than half our enrollment number and not even close to the geographic and demographic diversity of our 13,000 students spread over 40 square miles from Camden to Flora to Ridgeland.
The importance of our accountability score performance cannot be overstated. Just read any recent national news report on COVID’s impact on education and you will find the narrative is the exact opposite of what we are witnessing in our community. For example, earlier this year the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) was the first to measure student learning loss or gain during the pandemic. A version of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) given to fourth graders showed a nationwide decline in math and reading compared to 2020.
To state it directly, through the efforts of the entire Madison community, we have come out on the other side of this crisis academically better. Lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned as we seek to become better prepared for the next crisis. Make no mistake that there are current and lingering effects of the pandemic that will need to be addressed on many levels over many years. But for now, please take the time to thank a teacher you know, an administrator who has put in untold extra hours redesigning how we do education, a parent who has equally persevered through adversity, or most vitally a Madison County student who has not only endured but has prevailed against a challenge for which they had no responsibility in creating but everything to do with overcoming.
Jason Dean, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President of the PATH Company and the District 1 Board Member for the Madison County School Board.