An incredibly diverse school district, Mississippi’s Pascagoula School District (PSD) is showing school systems around the state and the country that diversity isn’t an obstacle to academic success. Thanks to a focus on data, best practices, and research, it is engaged in forward thinking projects designed to change     the lives of the areas population for the better.

“We’re addressing all the issues that affect our students, everything from academic performance to dropout prevention to teen pregnancy,” said Wayne Rodolfich, superintendent. “We’re still not where we’d like to be, but we have a nationally recognized dropout prevention program, and our academic performance indicators are improving.”

Located in the southeast corner of Mississippi between Biloxi, Miss. and Mobile, Ala., PSD is a public school district with about 7,000 students in 21 schools serving the cities of Gautier and Pascagoula, Miss. It was established in 1912 and now has 1,100 teachers, administrators, and instructional and other support personnel.

Planning to improve

Since 2007, PSD has been working off of a multifaceted 2007-12 strategic plan. The plan aims to create a nationally competitive PK-12 curriculum, identify students’ needs and implement intervention strategies, meet the health and psychological needs of all students, build an understanding of diversity, employ quality professionals and support professional development, and connect parents and the community to the learning process through communication and technology.

With its efforts around PK-12 curriculum implementation, PSD has been working in many areas. It has aimed to implement relevant professional development for teachers and administrators, comprehensive K-12 fine arts curriculum, K-8 foreign language curriculum, K-12 technology curriculum, a core of high school online courses for credit, a data warehouse, and a technology replacement schedule.

PSD’s work includes increasing the resources available to parents and teachers as well as the number of students completing honors and AP courses. It has developed transition plans for students moving from elementary to middle to high school and curriculum and assessments for subject areas that previously were without them. It is also working to provide technology resources within curriculum as well as a fine arts performance center for each community served by the school district.

The district’s focus has additionally been on establishing professional learning communities and a kindergarten program for age four. PSD’s plan included expansion of research-based instructional practices and strategies and collaboration with Excel by Five. Beyond that, creating a nationally competitive PK-12 curriculum hinges on ensuring quality instruction in each classroom, creating a school board policy to help educators and students connect with technology, and evaluating educational and academic software.

“Another thing we did after Hurricane Katrina was build the Star (Students’ Technology and Reading) Bus, which is basically a rolling computer lab with 12 computers, Accelerated Reader, learning programs, and a projection system,” said Rodolfich. “We also just received our most recent ITBS scores, and we’ve made dramatic improvements at the first and second grade levels.”

Around the identification of student needs and intervention strategies, PSD has students and parents fill out a start-of-the-year survey. It also created a school-within-a-school ninth grade academy and transition schools between elementary and middle school, maintained small class sizes, and provided access to reading support and district level social workers. Among its plans around meeting student health and psychological needs are providing activity based instruction for K-8 students, reinforcing health education studies, developing CPR and first aid training programs for faculty and staff, creating mental health programs for each secondary school, and establishing a staff wellness center.

As for diversity, PSD is addressing cultural awareness and diversity issues and educating staff members about how to challenge and motivate a diverse population. With developing a stable of quality professionals, it is increasing online professional development opportunities, offering professional development during the school day, encouraging professional advancement through resources and leave days, and rewarding outstanding performance. Lastly, improving connections with parents and community has required programs at each school that encourage parental and community involvement, investments in technology that ensures effective communication, development of a comprehensive marketing campaign, and creation of a dynamic partnership program.

Recognized for success

Results suggest the district’s plan is working. The “Destination Graduation!” dropout prevention campaign has been so successful it has been recognized with national, regional, and state awards. The district built a new stadium in Gautier, upgraded athletic facilities, and opened the 700-seat Singing River Auditorium. The district’s website has also been upgraded.

In addition, PSD created the Family Interactive Center in Carver High School. This was once a place where segregated African-American students went to school. It is now a place where more than 40,000 people have participated in events since it opened in 2009, and it has helped nurture partnerships between the district and the business and service communities.

“The school was basically empty, so we renovated it and started creating partnerships with different organizations. The center has a wetlands room, a broadcast journalism studio, a recording studio, a room with ship simulators, an Apple iMac lab, a vintage game room, a flight simulator room, and a 600-seat auditorium that converts into a gym,” said Rodolfich. “We also have an Excel by Five toy library for kids ages zero to five, and the center holds Super Saturdays featuring different sponsors and themes.”

In fact, Pascagoula was named one of the 100 Best Communities in America by the America’s Promise Alliance due in part to the Family Interactive Center and the “Destination Graduation!” campaign. In addition, Rodolfich himself has been honored with awards such as the state Economic Development and Community Partnership Award from PREPS. He was also named one of South Mississippi’s Outstanding Community Leaders for 2010.

The district was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina a few years ago, but it has bounced back and is better than ever in many ways. It has spent $29 million in renovations, repairs, and upgrades and reconfigured its schools. Now, it is prepared to move ahead. Going forward, Rodolfich sees parent education and culture change on campus as keys to helping the transition to common core standards that are coming to Mississippi.

“Change can be scary, but Mississippi is progressive in many ways. We are looking at the national trends so we can balance academics, athletics, arts, and more to the benefit of this community,” he concluded.

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