Cellphones, ear buds use forbidden during classes: Murray County High School makes changes based on poor test results

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

Kim Fortenberry and therapy dog Hattie met members of the Murray County Board of Education during a work session last week. Fortenberry and Hattie "have touched the lives of our kids" at Pleasant Valley Innovative School, said Assistant Principal Dustin Strickland. 

CHATSWORTH — Partially in response to lackluster results from recent testing, Murray County High School is "resetting" expectations for students and staff this year.

For example, students won't be able to wear hooded sweatshirts over their heads in classes, nor will they have access to their cellphones during classes, and ear buds are out during class time, as well, Principal Gina Linder explained during a Murray County Board of Education work session last week. "Students just cannot keep themselves away from cellphones," and "we want to see your ears and eyes" this school year, which isn't possible when students pull hoods over their heads.

With these changes, students "can think about what they're supposed to think about instead of what's on their phone," said Renda Baggett, a former teacher and the school board's District 2 representative. "They are there to learn."

Having cellphones in "class is just wrong," said Kelli Reed, the at-large representative on the school board. As for bundling up in a hoodie during class, "that's just disrespectful."

If "you're in a plant, you get one warning (about cellphone use), and then it's termination," said Conrad Puryear, the school board's District 5 representative. "That's the real world."

The high school has also "reset" expectations for teachers, including an emphasis on "bell-to-bell instruction," Linder said. "We don't have time to spare."

While "we expected a dip" on this spring's Georgia Milestones due to the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the scores were "much lower than expected, and nobody was happy with the scores, so we immediately planned meetings with our leadership team," she said. While "we did well in" content areas like American literature and U.S. history, the results in biology and algebra "were just not good, and we have to own it."

While the pandemic can be an excuse, "everyone was dealing with that," and only 23% of Murray County High's students scored 3 (proficient) or 4 (distinguished) on the Georgia Milestones in biology, while only 9% did so in algebra, compared to the state figures of 42% and 31% respectively, she said. "We have to own it (and decide) what we're going to do to fix it."

"We had some really hard conversations to grow and learn from mistakes," which "helped," said Assistant Principal Andrea Morrow. They realized "students are not engaged and motivated," which led to "three action steps."

The school is restructuring its Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and interventions, with the latter focusing on numeracy and literacy for 25 minutes during fifth period, she said. There will be three subject-specific PLCs for teachers and one department PLC where department members will discuss trends they've observed.

"Our teachers work really, really hard," Linder said. "We're just not working in the right ways, and we need to figure out what that right way is."

It's "going to be a busy year, to say the least," Morrow said.

North Murray High School

North Murray High School was "far ahead" of the state in American literature on the Georgia Milestones, as 42% of students were proficient or distinguished, compared with 28% for the state, and "we're excited," said Principal Maria Bradley. "Our American lit teachers did a great job last year."

North Murray officials are aiming for even better results this school year in American literature, said Donna Eskut, an assistant principal. Toward that aim, English teachers will have common planning time to share ideas, and American literature and U.S. history teachers will collaborate on lesson planning to connect content so students gain deeper understanding — this could include, for example, timing the reading of certain books in American literature with the study of that particular era in U.S. history.

Learning intentions and targets will be posted in classrooms and explained to students, Eskut said. Students will receive increased remediation as dictated by data with additional tutoring and USA TestPrep, which provides curriculum resources and test preparation nationally.

Administrators will provide feedback in PLCs when common assessment data is reviewed, and administrators and instructional coaches will identify learning targets and intentions during teacher observations, Bradley said. Reports from Membean, a fluency/vocabulary reading comprehension tool "we've had success with," will be used to provide additional teacher feedback.

When students perform well on assessments, they'll be eligible for rewards and prizes. The school is also adding incentives for teachers if their students improve from common assessment to common assessment.

Like American literature, U.S. history was a Georgia Milestones highlight for the school, with 44% of students scoring a 3 or 4 versus 30% around the state, but "we fell short in math," as only 18% of students were proficient or distinguished, below the state figure of 31%, Bradley said. However, "I believe we're on the right track, and I believe we will surpass the state average this year."

The pre-algebra textbook is "brand new, and we're excited for that, because we've got to have a book," she said. "We have online software, (too), but I want our kids to have a book."

The school will employ similar improvement strategies in math as English and history, such as posting and discussing learning targets in classrooms, Eskut said. If students "understand what they're supposed to learn, they are more likely to actually learn it."

Administrators will provide feedback in PLCs when common assessment data is reviewed, and administrators and instructional coaches will identify learning targets and intentions during teacher observations, Bradley said. Students who perform well on assessments will be eligible for prizes and incentives, and incentives will be provided for teachers who meet their goals throughout the year.

Pleasant Valley Innovative School

Pleasant Valley Innovative School serves all high school virtual learners in Murray County Schools, students catching up on credits and "Bridge Kids" there due to discipline issues, so "we're really three schools in one," said Assistant Principal Dustin Strickland. "We work really well with kids who are struggling, and this year we plan to push 'soft skills' so they know" what they can do following graduation.

"We want them to leave better women and men than when they walked through the door," Strickland said.

Pleasant Valley's graduation rate is now over 80%, which "we are super proud of," as it's a marked increase from 59.5% just a few years ago.

"We specialize in building authentic relationships with our kids," and Kim Fortenberry and her therapy dogs, first Layla, and now Hattie, are "vital in that," he said. "They're integral and have touched the lives of our kids." Not only students, however, but parents who visit, and even faculty, he said.

Pleasant Valley is "in the running" to be named one of the Georgia Association of Alternative Education's three spotlight schools, and Fortenberry and her therapy dogs are one reason for that.

"Their whole world changes with Hattie," Fortenberry explained. "I have the best job in the world."

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