In light of the Mehlville School District’s public-engagement process, incoming Superintendent Terry Noble has one question for residents: Is average good enough?
“To a highly successful school, the term ‘average’ is not in our vocabulary,” Noble said. “Do we want to strive for the median or do we want to strive to be the very best?”
Noble will address the public Monday, May 14, at the second of 11 community-engagement sessions at Bernard Middle School, 1054 Forder Road. The session, like all others, is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m.
The upcoming community-engagement session specifically will focus on the topics of academic achievement and curriculum.
To provide a glimpse into the district’s academic picture, Noble and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Connie Hurst-Bayless plan to present an academic achievement report for the period between 2002 and 2006.
That presentation will include Missouri Assessment Program scores for communication arts and math as well as a state and national comparison to other districts’ American College Test, or ACT, scores.
Using the past five years in communication arts, Mehlville has not scored in the top 25 percentile compared to all Missouri school districts. In 2006, third-grade pupils scored in the 72nd percentile in communication arts among all state school districts. With math, the district did score in the 81st percentile statewide in 2006 and reached the top 25 percentile in three of the past five years.
Regarding ACT scores, Mehlville School District graduates have consistently performed at or above state averages. In 2006, the average school-district ACT score of 21.8 ranked higher than the state average of 21.6 and the national average at 21.1.
The report also shows that the district’s 2006 attendance rate of 95.2 percent is at an all-time high. Besides maintaining a high attendance rate, Noble last week told the Facilitating Team for COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — that when he takes over in July for interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers, he would like to continue recent progress and improve the district academically.
“What is the status quo?” he asked. “We won’t know the answer until we get some information. But what is the status quo? And are we satisfied with average? That’s the two questions I think we’ve got to get out there. What is the status quo and are we satisfied with the status quo? I think it’s going to show we’re kind of average in a lot of ways.”
In his April 30 presentation, Noble laid out a variety of research-driven characteristics of successful school districts. Noble detailed the outcome of successful schools into six causes — authenticity, credibility, expectancy, competency, synchronicity and a strong work ethic.
“I’m not suggesting that we’re not also doing some of those same things,” Noble said. “But I’m going to talk about, basically, we’ll define what it means to have a successful school. And in doing that, we’re going to be defining the term excellence because that should be our goal.”
He also said that according to research, every successful school has three traits — collective action, an agreed-upon purpose and a belief in attainment.
“Collective action involves strong community partnerships, a participation by key stakeholders and who are key stakeholders,” Noble said. “Well, they’re the Board of Education, the staff, the students, the parents, the patrons, the business-incentive groups. These are the people that have the most to gain and the most to lose. So basically, everybody that’s here this evening.
“The second one here is agreed-on purpose. And that refers to having a clear focus on student achievement. That would be a school district’s agreed-on purpose. That should be our primary focus. And every decision that a school district makes should be weighed against this purpose.
“And then the third one is belief in attainment. All successful schools believe in attainment. And this involves a positive environment, cooperation and collaboration. We find common ground even though we know that we have our own differences. We disagree on some things. The one thing that we all have in common is that we believe in our students and we want what’s best for them, especially in terms of achievement. And we believe that failure is not an option. Research says that the various participants of successful schools have collectively developed a sense of urgency and show a remarkable tendency to see themselves as being involved in a moral equivalent of war and a cause beyond oneself. This sense of urgency that drives us is to reach our goal, which is excellence. I want to comment, too, that every research study indicates schools that are not successful have an absence of all three of these. There is no collective action, there’s no agreed-upon purpose and their is no belief in attainment.”
He focused several times last week on the importance of employee supervision, which he believes is “probably the biggest weakness I see in school districts.”
“It’s not just adequate funding, it’s about having a competent staff,” Noble said. “This is really where we spend most of our money and most of our resources. It’s invested in our staff. We’re talking about having a competent staff that is capable, experienced, skilled and experts. And competency involves the proper management of resources. So this is what organizations do that are really successful and have attained excellence. They properly manage their resources … Research shows staff development is the number-one factor in student achievement. That impact involves ongoing, continuous analysis, reflection and growth. It involves teacher collaboration where teachers share ideas and best practices with each other. We don’t work in isolation.
“And I’d like to make a comment here. Can you believe that some educators would want to keep the good stuff to themselves and not share with their colleagues? This can happen when the administration plays one teacher against the other. We should never do that. We should never evaluate individual teachers based on test results. And the reason for that is the accountability belongs to everybody. Every teacher at every level at every subject area teaches critical-thinking skills, teaches writing, they teach problem solving and they establish the foundation for the teachers that will have the kids for the next year and the next year. And we’re only as strong as our weakest link. So if we want teachers’ collaboration to occur, we have to understand that we’re all working for the same common goal. And that’s student achievement.”
The COMPASS Facilitating Team reminded Noble last week that residents at Monday’s community-engagement session will not only judge what Noble has to say, but also evaluate what they believe are the best steps to academic success in the district.
“You have to lay out the plan, the achievement,” Facilitating Team member Keith Benack said. “We have to generate as a community the discussion about the plan. It’s not our place to say ‘That’s not it.’ It’s our place to say ‘Of all those things, what are important to us? Within our life experience, what works?’ And that’s the discussion that has to be held. It’s not about ‘Well, I think that’s a bunch of hooey.’
“It’s about of all of these points … and case in point, the one thing that you told me three times in your presentation is it’s extremely important to supervise your staff. That tells me as a taxpayer that if you know that and you hone in on training your principals and getting rid of the dead weight that that’s going to be a huge improvement that isn’t going to cost me a ton of money, quite frankly. So from your discussion, I took that as that’s something the man recognizes. It’s recognized as important. You told me the teachers, it makes them happy. So that’s something that you can hone in on. And we’re not talking about new buildings and new programs and new this and new that. We’re talking about changing the attitude of management, which can be done.”
And while he appreciates Noble’s willingness to research successful school districts and compare Mehlville to those, Mehlville Senior High junior and Facilitating Team member Justin Carter said he would like to see more of Noble’s personal opinions on improving the district.
“You’re telling us over and over ‘This is what the research says, this is what the research says,'” he said to Noble. “Well, I want to know what you say, what you think will help us improve. Because you’re the expert on this topic.”