How to be an A-rated school district? We asked 5 Coast superintendents how they did it.

Most of the school districts that got an A accountability rating for the first time ever were in South Mississippi, the state reported last week.

Bay-Waveland, Gulfport, Harrison County, Hancock County and Stone County were five of nine districts to earn an A grade for the first time in the 2018-19 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

To find out what led to their success, the Sun Herald spoke with the superintendents from all five of those districts.

“My hats are off to the leaders of those districts because they’ve obviously been focusing on the right things,” state Superintendent Carey Wright said on a phone call with media.

She said, in general, schools that have been seeing success are those that focus on data to target instruction and professional development.

“I’ve said oftentimes behind every data point is a face,” Wright said. “So if you’re looking at your data, who are these faces that are still struggling and what are we going to do differently about them?”

She mentioned Gulfport and Superintendent Glen East as an example.

“I look at Gulfport, in particular, who’s been just a solid, solid B year after year and Glen has never made excuses,” Wright said. “He’s been one of those superintendents that’s about all children and making sure all children are succeeding and looking at his data, using his data, driving instruction with his data.”

Gulfport School District

East credited improvement by English-language learners, or students whose first language is not English, as well as the number of high school students taking accelerated classes, like Advanced Placement courses.

“We push our kids pretty hard in ELA and mathematics, but the difference this year of moving from a B to an A really comes from our English-language learners. We’re top in the state in that gain,” East said.

Like many districts across the Coast, Gulfport’s percentage of Hispanic or Latino students has been growing over the past few years. It has the third-highest percentage at 7.2%. Pascagoula-Gautier has the highest at 18.5%, followed by Biloxi at 14.1%

Pass Road Elementary had the state’s third-highest English-learner progress, a new metric added to this year’s accountability model.

“In the classroom, our teachers are well-versed, they pull the students as small group as well and work on phonics,” said Pass Road Principal Simone Fairley.

“We involve our parents a lot with our EL,” she said. “We have, actually, a Hispanic Heritage Day coming up.”

East also attributed the district’s improvements to the way teachers in the district interact with their students.

“I think the biggest things for us are relationships and how we speak to our children, and the conversation we’re having with our children. especially the academic conversations.”

Bay-Waveland School District

Bay-Waveland Superintendent Sandra Reed says their success came from a shift in focus.

Her district was the only district in the state to jump from a C to an A.

“We focused on students that were previously under-performing,” Reed said.

In reading, the growth of Bay-Waveland’s bottom 25% of students was ranked No. 1 in the state. The growth of their math students in the bottom 25% was ranked No. 10 in the state.

“We also focused on improving our instructional strategies across the board and increased the focus of all personnel on building a stronger instructional program,” Reed said.

In order to maintain the A-rating, Reed said their plan is to increase the rigor for all students in the district.

Hancock County School District

In Hancock County, Superintendent Alan Dedeaux is particularly proud of the efforts of the teachers.

“Programs don’t teach students, teachers do. We work very hard to recruit and retain good teachers and with the teacher shortage we have been experiencing, this can often be a challenge,” Dedeaux said.

Despite the shortage, three of the four elementary schools increased their English Language Arts proficiency by at least 10 percentage points, and five schools increased their math proficiency by at least 10 percentage points.

The district also had a 97% overall pass rate on the third-grade reading assessment.

“We addressed our weaknesses based on student data, we set district goals, and we use progress monitoring to make sure we are all moving forward,” Dedeaux said.

Harrison County School District

Superintendent Roy Gill said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to their first A-rating, but he’s very proud of the success across the district.

Harrison County elementary and middle schools had a great year with 10 elementary and middle schools receiving an A-rating. West Harrison High School also landed an A.

“There is no one program or magic formula. It is through hard work and dedication from everyone involved,” Gill stated.

Woolmarket Elementary School made the biggest jump of Harrison County elementary schools, with 76 more points than they scored last year. Also noteworthy is North Woolmarket’s seven-year streak of receiving an A-rating.

“When our students succeed and become stronger academically, the test scores will follow. We are grateful to have such strong support and a commitment to excellence from all of our stakeholders.”

Stone County

Stone County School District Superintendent Inita Owen says a lot of changes went into their improvements.

The district made a 60-point jump from last year to give them their first A-rating.

“We made some rigorous curriculum changes, set high expectations for both teachers and students, and followed through with accountability to ensure fidelity to make sure that our students received the best educational opportunities possible,” Owen said.

With the changes, their lower 25% of math students improved 67%, and their lower 25% of reading students improved 62%.

The former teacher said she always knew the district had A-potential.

“We are now realizing that potential and are excited to continue our progress toward a better future for all the students of Stone County.”

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Britneé Davis is McClatchy’s South Region Digital Producer. The south region includes the Sun Herald, the Telegraph, and the Ledger-Enquirer.