By Teachers, For Teachers
PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. (AP) — Despite an impoverished student body, a 2005 hurricane that nearly wiped this community off the map and underfunding at the state level, the Pass Christian School District has managed to climb to the top of the list of successful Mississippi schools — and stay there.
The superintendent said the secret to its success isn't just one thing.
Not long after Hurricane Katrina shut down schools in the Pass for nearly two months, district leaders came together at a retreat to come up with a new mission statement, and they settled on "Commitment to Excellence." Since that moment, Superintendent Beth John said, every decision is made with that message in mind.
"We determined that day that if we're going to put this as our mission, we're going to do it," she said. "It really has to drive everything we do."
In Pass Christian, nearly 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, meaning they come from poor households. Because of those demographics, the Pass isn't the type of district that's expected to clinch the No. 1 spot in the state for five consecutive years. That landed Pass Christian High School a national award.
But it's not just the teachers helping kids be strong students. John said even the bus drivers take an interest.
"The bus drivers wanted to know when state tests were because they wanted to encourage the students when they leave the bus," she said. "When a bus driver shares in the responsibility, when they care enough about that child to encourage them, that's living our beliefs."
"We teach them that their way out is education," said Suzanne Ishee, a 20-year veteran middle school teacher. "We work very hard to let them know they're important to us."
In 2002, about the time Mississippi introduced a new writing assessment, Pass Christian Middle School ushered in Thinking Maps — eight ways of thinking that help students organize their writing.
"They're a snapshot of how people think, the map shows the thinking process," Ishee said.
When the middle school teachers saw success with the maps, they became a districtwide initiative.
"After (Katrina), when we lost everything here, one of the first things we did was bring back the maps," John said. "They were familiar to our students, who had lost so much. When we did that, in spite of having to miss all those days, we still had to take the state tests, and we came out on top. We feel like the Thinking Maps played a part in that."
With changes full implementation of Common Core standards just around the corner, John said it's important that the district stay ahead of the coming changes.
"It's tough to fly the plane while you're building it," John said. "We've always wanted to make sure the plane was well built before the state said fly, and I think that's really helped us."
John also said meeting monthly with the teachers, carefully writing assessments, and having support from the community all work together to make the Pass the academic powerhouse it's become.
"A lot of people have asked, 'What's the secret to Pass?'" Ishee said. "Well, we work hard every day and we have fun doing it."
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com