Biloxi Public Schools continues to celebrate student academic achievement, boosting an A rating and ranking 12th in the state in the 2020-21 Mississippi Statewide Accountability System, released in late September 2022. But it’s the data behind the ranking that has educators asking whether they found the secret to student success for this Gulf Coast district.
Melanie Nelson, director of elementary education and federal programs for Biloxi Public Schools, recalled getting a call from the superintendent when the data came out, asking, “What’s going on with second grade at Gorenflo?” Gorenflo Elementary School, which serves a higher free and reduced lunch population and has a growing English Language Learners community, was outranking three other high-performing schools, two of them holding Blue Ribbon status. Nelson recalled, “We determined the only thing different about the schools was the second grade teacher assistants we placed in targeted Gorenflo classrooms.”
With assistance from the Kellogg Foundation, three teacher assistants were hired to work in second grade classrooms; the goal was to close student achievement gaps in reading and math. Second grade was targeted for support to better prepare students for the third grade state reading assessment (Mississippi Academic Assessment Program English Language Arts, or MAAP ELA). Third grade is an important milestone for literacy; it’s the final year children are learning to read, after which they read to learn. The foundation grant also supported a school nurse, additional assistants at Nichols Elementary School and technology upgrades.
Nelson credited those classroom supports, as well as teacher and staff efforts to build trust with students and their parents, for students’ success.
“During COVID, teachers immediately jumped in by teaching students in a virtual platform,” she said. “They videotaped lessons that were broadcast on television stations, scheduled one-on-one tutoring sessions, conducted STEM activities and held virtual parent conferences. They packaged weekly materials, drove and gave them out, or were present at schools for parents to pick up lessons at their convenience.”
District assessments are created from evidence-based supplemental materials that measure state standards and are given to all students in that grade. This ensures the district has continuity in assessing students since second grade students in Mississippi do not take a state standardized assessment.
The success in Biloxi – a casino community along the Gulf Coast hit in recent years by catastrophic hurricanes and oil spills – shows the positive impact investments can have in communities affected by natural and human-made disasters. In 2010, the Biloxi School Board closed Nichols Elementary School, citing budget cuts. The school was the highest performing in the district. In 2014, with a grant from WKKF and community support, the school district re-opened Nichols Elementary School and added pre-K, making it a pre-K-1st grade school. The pre-K program quickly became one of the state’s highest-performing early learning programs.
The majority of Nichols’ students transition to Gorenflo Elementary School beginning in second grade. Because of the supports and student achievement in those early years, the district wanted to ensure similar supports for students transitioning to Gorenflo. Nelson said that a continuum of support has been essential to student success, and the district is looking at how to fund additional assistants in the lower grades.
“The story of Nichols and Gorenflo is similar to others with a high free and reduced rate and increasing enrollment of English Learners,” she said. “The takeaway is that when schools maximize their resources to their full potential, students will flourish.”