Could LeBron James help turn around Moss Point schools?

Rachel Mercer goes over information that will help new teachers with the new technology available at Moss Point schools.
Rachel Mercer goes over information that will help new teachers with the new technology available at Moss Point schools.

Superintendent Shannon Vincent is channeling the NBA for inspiration to turn around her troubled school district. What she does with the ailing district she inherited will determine whether the state comes in and takes it over.

Vincent is using the slogan of the Cleveland Cavaliers to motivate her staff. This year, the Cavs and their star player, LeBron James, used the “All in” slogan (#ALLin216) and won the NBA championship.

Vincent, in her second year as superintendent, was inspired.

“We need to be all in. I’m all in,” Vincent told her staff at an Aug. 2 pep rally.

The daughter of military parents, Vincent is part motivational speaker, part realist. She’s also a workaholic. If anyone can make the changes needed at Moss Point, many believe it’s her.

School may have just begun, but Vincent and district personnel have been working hard over the summer. She held the pep rally specifically to motivate the teaching staff after a day of training.

“Raising expectations, that’s the first thing you have to do,” Vincent continued. “When a student or a teacher has a goal they are working towards, even if they don’t reach it, they’ll have progressed further than they would have without that goal,” she said.

Far to go

The Moss Point School District is tasked with bringing scores up in 10 separate metrics, including raising graduation rates, reading and math scores and attendance rates.

By just about every assessment measure, the district falls below the state average. It also falls well below any other school district in South Mississippi.

Although statewide testing and curriculums have been in a state of flux, this year Moss Point showed room for improvement in every category.

▪ 41.4 percent passed high school English (67.2 percent state average).

▪ 33.3 percent passed high school algebra (64.5 percent state average); also had the highest percentage of students in the state who ranked in the lowest category.

▪ Less than half of third through eighth graders passed the English Language Arts and math tests.

Attendance is also an issue, one Vincent admits is a priority.

“Getting students in class. That’s the challenge. You have to change the culture,” she said.

Just over half the student body was considered chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. For the first time, the department’s Civil Rights Office on June 7 released the number of public school students grades kindergarten through 12 considered to be “chronically absent” — or missing at least 15 days.

Moss Point School District reported a 32.1 percent absentee rate, and only two state districts had higher rates. The statewide average was 15.8 percent

Low attendance rates typically results in lower graduation rates and high dropout rates, both true at Moss Point.

The graduation rate for the Moss Point district was 65.3 percent in 2014, down 8.6 percent from 2011 and the lowest among South Mississippi school districts.

The district’s goal is to increase the graduation rate by 5 percent, and simultaneously drop the dropout rate by 5 percent. It also hope to increase daily attendance among its students to between 93 to 96 percent.

Drastic measures

To turn things around, Vincent is placing a high level of responsibility on her staff.

“It starts with you. When you show enthusiasm and passion in your classrooms, it rubs off on the students,” she said.

Since taking the helm, Vincent has taken drastic measures to raise the reading comprehension levels of students. In July, four of five district principals were replaced. The new principals are well-versed in reading and reading comprehension.

“That’s definitely one of the things that stuck out to me in their resumes. Once you get the students’ reading comprehension up, they can do just about anything,” Vincent said.

Vincent also noted a federal grant will provide funding for two pre-K classrooms.

“This introduces children to school at an earlier age. The idea is to get them used to it,” she said.

In the week before school started, Vincent met with her teachers to prepare them for the new year.

“We’ve talked about our challenges. The first step is to acknowledge that you have challenges. We’ve acknowledged them. Now, it’s time to make a difference.”

She brought in renowned educator and motivator Ron Clark, who helped pump up the staff. Clark has lifted troubled school districts from decline in New York and North Carolina. He runs the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, where he trains teachers on better ways to teach and reach their students.

The statistics aren’t the whole story at Moss Point, Vincent said.

“We’ve heard about the chronic absences. We’ve read about them. We’ve heard about the graduation rates. We’ve read about them. We’ve heard about the test scores. We’ve read about those too,” Vincent said.

“Well, we can’t change the past. The only thing we can control is now.

“All in.”