Changes under way at county schools

By CATHRYN CARTWRIGHT,

Now that the summer season is drawing to a close, the Yazoo County School District is gearing up for a new school year with new opportunities for students, teachers, parents, and members of the community.

As he enters his second year as the Yazoo County School District Superintendent, Dr. Ken Barron will be working with the new Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Terri Rhea, as they carry out the District's strategic plan for the 2019-2020 school year.

Originally from Laurel, Rhea has a long history in the education field, working in the Jones County School District for 27 years as a teacher, lead teacher, assistant principal, and supervising principal.  She also worked at the Jones County Central Office as a director over the special needs programs and district curriculums, conducted professional development, and also wrote grants to obtain external funding for that district.  For the last few years, Rhea has worked as a educational consultant all over the state coaching and mentoring new teachers in a variety of disciplines.

Rhea said her goals for the Yazoo County School District are to bring in additional resources and new innovations to the teachers and students, as well as obtain external funding for the schools by writing grants.

"One thing that I am pretty passionate about is for every kid to have a chance," Rhea said. "I want to help bring in more Career and Technical Education, more STEM, and more 21st Century learning.  I want everybody to have an opportunity to find their niche."

Barron said that part of the new strategic plan for the upcoming school year was to send out a district-wide survey to all parents, students, teachers and members of the community in order to determine what the Yazoo County schools need to move forward.

"We had almost 1,000 people to respond to our survey," he said. "Of that number, we had over 400 students and around 375 parents to give us feedback."

This survey consisted of a list of questions relating to the school district, and allowed the individual to rate the district as a whole, including its facilities, academics, and extracurricular programs and even allowed for direct input for personal comments. 

Barron said that it was through this data that the administrative team was able to begin working on bringing positive changes to the district this year.

One of the newest opportunities coming to the Yazoo County district are the Pre-Kindergarten classes that will be offered at the elementary schools.

"We have allocated for up to 60 students to be included in the Pre-K program," Barron said. "We will have 20 at Linwood and 40 at Bentonia Gibbs, just because of the size of the schools and the proportion of the county that they serve."

The district has already secured three teachers for the Pre-K program, as well as three teacher assistants, who will be housed in classrooms on these elementary school campuses.

"What we like about Pre-K is that the standards we will be implementing will directly flow right into the standards that are implemented in kindergarten," said Rhea.

Barron said that this Pre-K program will only add to the already successful kindergarten programs in Yazoo County, which have boasted some of the highest scores in the state for reading and overall growth over the last few years.

Yazoo County has also made great strides in recruiting new staff for the upcoming school year.  So far the district has 139 licensed staff members and 75 who are unlicensed, 70 faculty members with advanced degrees, and eight faculty members with national certifications.

Barron said that 25 new teachers have been added to the district this year, and they will all attend a new teacher orientation as a part of the district's teacher mentoring program, which is meant to support and retain teachers who come to Yazoo County.

Some other changes that have already occurred for the school district are the updated district logo and websites.

The new logo, which features four gears turning together, has a different icon inside of each gear which represent academics, technology, arts, and athletics. 

"The whole idea behind the new logo is to show that we are trying to educate the entire child," Barron said. "We are trying to touch every area that they may have an interest in."

Rhea added that the newly updated school websites will be a more comprehensive hub for parents, teachers, students, and the community at large.

Barron said that another part of the strategic plan was to make the school district more secure by creating a police department for the Yazoo County Schools.

"This year we actually have two school resource officers that are licensed to carry arms," he said. "They are here and they can make arrests on campus and handle issues if we have a problem.  We are very appreciative of our School Board for allowing us to do that."

One positive change coming for the students this year is a relaxation of the dress code.

"We did relax the uniform policy a little this year," Barron said. "We opened up the school colors a little bit and added the Carolina Blue, which is more of a baby blue color, and then of course we will still have the white and navy."

In addition to the added color, students may now wear blue jeans or khaki pants to school, as well as any school-related T-Shirt.  Barron said that feedback from parents and students on the relaxed dress code had been "overwhelmingly positive" for the most part.

Other positive changes coming to the district this year include additions to the sports programs offered at the Yazoo County Schools, which are girls and boys soccer, and middle school baseball and softball. The district will also continue to have a color guard as a part of the band department during football season, and there are plans for the Drama Club to have a full production of a play by next spring.

Some changes coming to the academic side are adding more courses for STEM and technology to educate students for the 21st century. 

"We are also implementing a new virtual reality class here this year where we are going to be training kids on how to build virtual reality experiences," Barron said. "We are going to be purchasing some virtual reality equipment for our elementary and middle school kids so they can see things in virtual reality, such as the Himalayas."

Barron said that they are also boosting up an initiative for school clubs so that students can find a group to belong to and participate in an area that they enjoy or may be interested in.

"We are trying to get the students to increase their club presence," Barron said. "Coach Turner had a Chess Club at the high school last year, and that was really cool. We are also working on getting a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club started this year at the high school and middle school."

Barron said that all of these changes are a part of the overall strategic plan for the schools, which he hopes will in turn leave a positive mark on the district and the surrounding community.

"When people are happier with the district, and as you increase their pride, the kids perform better," he said. "When we address the children’s needs, we will improve our scores, which will improve our accountability rating, which will increase the public perception, which will lead to an increase in the economic development of our county. To me this is one big package that we are trying to wrap together."