Tupelo to seek District of Innovation flexibility

TUPELO • With elementary lessons that combine music and math or visual art and science, classes in vegetable gardens, a new behavior strategy and a classroom specially designed to help potential drop-outs, the Tupelo Public School District has found a variety of ways to implement innovative programs within Mississippi Department of Education regulations.

Still, there’s a way to push further and operate outside of MDE’s rules in order to offer more non-traditional learning environments.

Tupelo Public School District will apply to the Mississippi Department of Education to become a “District of Innovation,” starting in the 2020-21 school year. TPSD is beginning its application, which is due in November 2019, by gathering input from community members inside and outside of its classrooms. Earlier this week, the district released a survey that asks any member of the public to comment on TPSD’s strengths and needs.

“There are things at the front of our mind that we think would really benefit our kids, but at the end of the day it comes down what is the need. And the best way to identify our needs is to ask the students, parents, teachers and community members who know our district best,” TPSD Facilitator of Innovated Program Design Stewart McMillan said. “Then we can start working on innovative ways to address the need and determine which waivers we need to apply for.”

TPSD has arts integration built into the curriculum at all of its elementary schools. A farm-to-school program educates its students about the health benefits of local produce. Its kindergarten to fifth-grade teachers use CHAMPS – a behavior strategy that asks teachers to provide three examples of positive reenforcement for every negative correction. At the middle school, the PACE program provides a special classroom, personalized lessons and individual attention for students who have been held back and want to catch up with their peers.

If TPSD becomes a District of Innovation, it will have more flexibility to build on these existing innovative programs and design new ones. Districts of Innovation are granted waivers to operate outside of MDE regulations for school policies like seat time, teacher certification requirements or the Carnegie unit model for classroom credits.

Currently, MDE requires students to spend 330 minutes in class each school day, but a District of Innovation waiver could allow TPSD to offer online or night classes outside of traditional school hours.

MDE also requires that no more than 5 percent of a school’s teachers can lead a classroom without the corresponding MDE-approved endorsement. A waiver would allow TPSD to hire more instructors who have all the practical content knowledge but not necessarily the proper teacher certification.

“Our goal is to make sure all students have options once they finish school whether they be in college or a career. We want more college and career pathways, and that’s not just us, that’s a community-wide focus,” McMillan said. “We want to give students options so they have more flexibility and choice, and that can mean non-traditional learning opportunities, virtual learning, night classes and internship opportunities. District of Innovation waivers will give us more flexibility to offer those type of things.”

Currently Baldwyn, Corinth, Grenada, Gulfport, Hinds County and Vicksburg school districts are already operating as Districts of Innovation. Among them, the seat-time waiver has been the most popular of the 11 different waivers districts of innovation can apply for.

After Tupelo analyzes its community input, decides which waivers it wants and submits its application in in November 2019, MDE will notify the district in March 2020 about the approval or denial of its application.

For Superintendent Rob Picou, who has been preaching innovation since he was hired back in April, becoming a District of Innovation would help the district modernize its curriculums to suit 21st-century learners.

“Kids have changed, but the education system hasn’t. A 16-year-old today is much more advanced socially than I was at that age,” Picou said. “I believe in entrepreneurial leadership. I am just wired that way. If something is not working as well as it could be, I like to think about how it can work better.”