August 4, 2008

Kent: Communication Crucial to Academic Success

By Ida Brown, The Meridian Star, Miss.

Aug. 4--You might say that newly appointed Meridian Public School District Superintendent Charlie T. Kent Jr. was destined to move to Meridian.

Before applying for the superintendent's position, Kent had considered Meridian as a place where he and his wife, Mable, would retire.

"I had requested the retirement package that the city of Meridian sends out. I saw it in an AARP or other magazine as one of the places to retire," he said. "I was looking and then all of a sudden there was an opening for superintendent. After doing my research and applying for the position, low and behold, here I am."

Since assuming the post on July 1, Kent's work days have been filled with meetings.

"I'm still meeting people -- meeting with staff, trying to get things lined out," he said. "I'm finding out what has been done and what we need to do. And what things we need to change -- how soon we need to change some things, and some things are immediate."

It is an exciting time for the local school district. In addition to welcoming a new superintendent, MPSD is in the midst of a transformation.

This school year marks the introduction of the high school redesign program, Small Learning Communities or "schools within schools" -- groups of students who study specific, theme-based curricula over several years with the same team of teachers. Such learning communities offer personalized attention and concentrated support to students.

Also, construction of the ninth-grade building on the Meridian High School campus and the planned incorporation of eighth-grade into the middle schools are among the district's projected milestones for the school year.

Kent recently met with The Star's Editorial Board to talk about MPSD's growth and transformation, with emphasis on the overall focus: providing students quality education and opportunities for success. Following are highlights of that discussion:

The Star: What have you found about "what has been done and what needs to be done?"

Kent: We're going through this high school reform and there are a few little things that need to be tweaked, like scheduling and trying to prepare the two junior high schools -- one ready to close at the end of the school year, but there are some things that we need to do to get those students ready for the next year. And since we're going to have three middle schools next year, we're going to start setting up the junior high which is closing (Kate Griffin) in teams to work like a middle school, so the kids won't be totally lost next school year.

The Star: What goals have you set for the district?

Kent: I'll be working off the district's goals. I'm finding there's a definite need for us to communicate with the parents. And also to get the parents to come in and partner with us. As I talk to staff, go into the stores and what have you, I've realized that there has been a communication breakdown. And we need to fix that immediately.

We also need to make parents understand and feel that they are part of the partnership, and that they are comfortable and welcome to come to the school. One of the things that I'm going to do is to ask parents to bring their kids to school the first day so that way they can meet the teachers. I want parents and teachers to exchange phone numbers.

I'm also going to ask parents to turn their TVs off for at least three hours a night, and have them to have their child to read to them at least three to five hours a week. And if the parent or guardian is having problems reading, then have the kids read to them. We have to make sure that everyone in the district, every teacher teaches reading. Literacy is important and we also have to get the students to a point where they enjoy reading, and they read for fun.

Star: What ways do you plan to increase communication between parents, teachers, students and staff?

Kent: We will have a quarterly newsletter. And, for the first year I plan to have a town hall meeting of some sort every month or six weeks. I want parents to give us feedback as to what they see -- what they see in their children, how their children are coming home and what they are saying; we need to know. We need feedback -- positive and any other kind. We will take any feedback, but we really like constructive criticism.

Star: How do you plan to increase the district's test scores and other academic achievements? (It should be noted that at Kent's previous school where he served as superintendent -- Country Club Hills School District, a suburb of south Chicago -- student achievement increased when he joined the district in 2001. In the 2001-02 school year, only 40 percent of the district's students met or exceeded state learning goals, as measured by the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. By 2006-07, approximately 61 percent of students were doing so)

Kent: The state has come out with a new set of standards. So the standards our teachers were teaching to last year, we have to build capacity with them and also make sure that we scaffold and build on what they were doing so that we can also increase their teaching abilities, their level of knowledge and go forward so that they will be able to teach to the new standards. Because if they teach to the old standards, we won't make it.

We are increasing professional development for all of our teachers and staff. All of those things will help get us ready to meet the rigorous standards that have been set forth by the state, because we're also going to increase rigors on our end. It's going to be a three-fold prospective. The curriculum will be rigorous, relevant and personable. We want to make it fit and we want everybody to buy into it. So we're going to have to look at and change the way that we have been doing some of our business to meet those standards.

Star: What do you think about the new high school redesign Meridian Public School District is implementing?

Kent: I think it is a good effort; we have a couple of things in the district that we have to look at. We have a high dropout rate. By going to small learning communities, we're also going to personalize a lot of what we do. And we're also going to be able to reach students in areas where they have an interest. We know we have to teach them the core courses, but there's some special interest that they would have and that's when they would chose one of the small learning communities to go into that area and specialize, so to speak. Hopefully, they will either be ready to go into college or a vocation once they graduate from high school. But we think -- and we are hoping -- that this will also increase our graduation rate.

The small learning communities, when we talk about personalizing, we will now have a way to stay on top of a child when he or she is starting to become at-risk. We have someone they go to or someone who will be looking out for their interest and then can bring others in to assist them in trying to get them out of whatever is causing them to become an at-risk student.

Star: Because of rising fuel prices, some school districts state and nationwide -- including Lauderdale County -- are considering a four-day school week. Is Meridian Public School District also considering this?

Kent: That is one of the things on the agenda to look at during our all administrative meeting.

Star: Tell us about your life away from school.

Kent: My lovely wife and I have four children and 10 "spoiled" grandchildren. I grew up in the Delta, graduated from Coahoma Junior College and from there went to Mississippi Valley State, where I received a bachelor of science degree.

From there, I went to Louisville, Ky., where I began my teaching career and also worked as a basketball coach. And, from there, I went to Champaign/Urbana, Ill., where I continued to teach and coach. I have been a central office administrator since 1985.

In Indianapolis, I was a member of the Rotary Club and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. I also have held several offices in the educational arena, including past president of the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA) and serving on the staff of IASA, and also past president of the Superintendent's Commission of the Study of Demographics and Diversity.

I play golf every chance I get -- I'm not that great, but I play. I fish and I am a bowler -- I do have a 300 ring, so I can say that I am a bowler.


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