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Johnson speaks about student improvement

By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
May 19, 2003
State Superintendent of Education Henry Johnson said he believes scores on the Mississippi Curriculum Test a statewide standardized test for second- through eighth-grade students will improve this year.
Johnson, who became state superintendent last year, came from North Carolina. He said he faced many of the same challenges and problems there that Meridian public schools face today.
Johnson also said he is convinced that community involvement makes or breaks a school system. Johnson talked about those and other issues in an interview with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: When you talk about getting kids ready to go to school, do you mean working with the parents at home or are you talking about something other than kindergarten?
Henry Johnson: As a society we have not answered that question. That is the fundamental question. What shall the society do to get all of these children ready for success in schools?
One way we have attempted to do that is with Head Start. There also are some who would like to see public schooling started earlier. But a lot of folks don't want kids going to school any younger than they already are.
As a society, we need to answer the question and it has not been answered. I think what President Bush is proposing, to put the Head Start Program into the educational community, is one effort. But I don't know if that will happen.
The Star: How important is prekindergarten in preparing children for kindergarten? Should it be mandated?
Johnson: Most people would say kids that have a prekindergarten experience benefit more, especially those who are from a poor background. But whether that translates into having prekindergarten mandatory or not, I'm not quite sure.
I think there has to be some kind of program, whether it's mandatory public schooling or a combination of Head Start and other preschool type programs.
I am leery to say Give us your 3- and 4-year-olds.' But what I am saying is … the Meridian community in particular needs to decide how we are going to deal with those preschool youngsters who are probably not likely to be successful without intervention.
The Star: Have you been able to visit many of the preschool programs throughout the state?
Johnson: I have visited a few, but mostly I have visited kindergarten through 12th grade.
The Star: What kind of input do you have on the state level as far as the search for Meridian's new superintendent?
Johnson: None, really. I've been asked to come up and talk generally about educational leadership and about improving teaching and learning. I understand the (city school) board will be considering how it will go about finding its next superintendent. But we have not been asked to get directly involved.
The Star: Was the school system you left in North Carolina similar to Meridian in what it was facing. Is that why you came here?
Johnson: I think the (state) board hired me primarily because of my experience with accountability models, specifically the North Carolina model. There are similarities. I don't expect a quick a turnaround in Mississippi. It is going to be a long haul.
The Star: Could you give us an overview of what accountability is?
Johnson: Accountability is based on academic growth expectations for students. If schools continually do not meet growth expectations, then the state could step in and take over. The federal No Child Left Behind Legislation adds to that. It requires calculation of student success on an individual basis. Percent proficient is the federal law versus Mississippi's model, which looks at improvement in actual student performance on a scale that may not necessarily equate to grade-level proficient.
The Star: Several Meridian schools could face take-over by the state. What can they do in the next couple of years that would make a big difference in test scores and prevent that from happening?
Johnson: Several things.
I think the school system needs to make sure it hires a good superintendent. I think the school board and the superintendent need to make sure there is a strong principal in each school a principal that knows teaching and learning.
Those schools need to make sure teachers and principals identify kids who need additional help, and that teachers and principals have conversations about what is required in the curriculum because sometimes they don't talk about it.
Those kinds of things need to happen. Central office needs to be a very visible player and each school needs to develop a self-assessment plan to gauge their success on a periodic basis.

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