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Better Together Starkville-MSU Partnership Provides New Arena of Opportunities to Students, Future Teachers

By Carl Smith

This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of School Focus magazine.

A new Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District (SOCSD) middle school located on the Mississippi State University (MSU) campus is positioned — literally and figuratively — to provide one-of-a-kind educational opportunities to its students and prepare the next generation of teachers with hands-on training in a real-world environment unlike anywhere else in the state.

Opened for the 2020-2021 academic year, Partnership Middle School (PMS) serves all Oktibbeha County sixth and seventh graders — an important point of pride for administrators in a community where two school districts operated separately until a state-ordered merger occurred six years ago.

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum and Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District (SOCSD) Superintendent Eddie Peasant inspect the Partnership Middle School (PMS) gymnasium this summer during a tour of the completed facility. Photo by Megan Bean, MSU Office of Public Affairs

As its name suggests, collaboration is what sets this school apart from others: It was specifically planned and constructed not only to bring children together in specialized classrooms, but also to have students and teachers plugged directly into the university setting where they benefit from immediate access to faculty and research from a wide variety of disciplines.

The campus also serves as an intersection where theory and practice meet: MSU College of Education faculty use the school as a place to practice research in the classroom and offer professional development to its faculty, while the college’s undergrads and graduate students observe classroom life and learn the finer details about what it really means to be a teacher — a picture not fully colored by textbooks or lectures.

Although the outbreak of COVID-19 slowed the complete integration of college observers throughout the building, Dr. Nathan Oakley, the Mississippi Department of Education’s (MDE's) chief academic officer, said the school will pay great dividends once it gets up to speed.

“The little I’ve seen so far from it is remarkable. It’s a great example of the value of a collaborative approach where broad stakeholder input and support from a community came together to address a need,” he said. “It’s not solely benefitting the kids, the university’s instructors or its education majors. No matter what angle you look at this from, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Coming Together

David Shaw, MSU’s former vice president for research and economic development, said he walked out of one of the first meetings in 2013 ahead of the Mississippi Legislature-ordered consolidation of the two local school districts demoralized and unsure how all the associated entities would ever come together in harmony.

Parents of students in both districts — the former Oktibbeha County School District (OCSD) and Starkville School District — wanted the best for their children and what would become SOCSD, but decades of grievances and distrust came to a head that night.

Top: Adrienne Minor, who teaches English Language Arts to sixth graders at PMS works with her masked and socially distanced students during the fall semester. Bottom: Ashley Allen, a seventh grade science teacher at PMS, poses in her classroom.

Many issues lingered unresolved since the desegregation orders of the previous century. The city school district, for example, survived financially on Starkville’s tax base and even expanded its territory into outlying areas outside of the municipality, while county residents as a whole routinely opposed bond issuances — additional tax increases — for the primarily African American OCSD.

“Books could be written about what we went through during the commission process itself,” said Shaw, who served as the university’s representative on the consolidation commission charged by the Legislature with presenting a plan on how to bring the two systems together in 2015.

MSU officials had long worked with both school systems, with efforts including administering programs that provided teacher education, mentoring and tutoring. Shaw and local public education stakeholders always knew the potential existed for an opportunity that could fundamentally change education in both the county and state by bringing the three entities together under one roof.

Shaw and his MSU cohort got their opportunity: The same legislative measure that forced Oktibbeha County residents to confront years of division by merging its school systems also tasked the newly created district and university with working together on a campus that would serve as a model for rural education.

After studying the university-public school partnerships that existed in the nation at the time, Shaw and MSU administrators pitched an early college high school-styled campus modeled after an existing Ohio State University program to stakeholders, but they rejected the idea out of concerns the university was “trying to construct a school for … faculty’s and staff’s children and [was] going to siphon off the best kids for it,” thereby perpetuating two separate educational pathways for families of different socio-economic classes in the same county.

“We walked away knowing we had to start all over again. We had listening sessions in the county and city to hear what was needed,” Shaw said. “I can proudly say the school, as it stands now, was not on anybody’s mind when we started to process it, and it truly came out of a very open and transparent set of conversations. What came out was what nobody thought of initially, but it uniquely fits our needs.”

Ground broke on the 128,000-square-foot facility in 2017 after about $30 million was secured from a variety of public funds and private donations. The university also donated about 40 acres toward the effort.

Shaw, now the university’s provost, was on hand for 2020’s ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony. Great teamwork, he said, is why the project came to fruition.

“This really is the best example I’ve ever seen of a community coming together to make something happen. There wasn’t one champion out there — it was everyone coming together in the best interest of the children in the entire county,” he said. “From the parents and teachers to the university and its staff, everyone worked together to find the best way forward. I could not be prouder of the way we did it.

“There were strong opinions, and we went through a lot of hard discussions and work to get here; however, everyone’s heart was in the right place,” Shaw added. “They all wanted to do the right thing.”

Formative Years

While landmark legislation that would forever change the course of education in Oktibbeha County emerged in 2013, that same year was also transformative for the MDE.

The department entered a time of reorganization after welcoming Dr. Carey Wright to her post as the state superintendent of education. Internally, numerous changes were made to important elementary and secondary areas, from providing students access to high-quality early childhood programs and taking deliberate, systematic approaches to improving literacy rates by completion of third grade to redesigning the school accountability model and placing a new emphasis on advanced placement and dual-credit courses.

SOCSD Principal Julie Kennedy (center, speaking) leads teachers on a tour of the campus while it is under construction. Photo by Megan Bean, MSU Office of Public Affairs

Since then, MDE officials have spent a considerable amount of effort and resources prioritizing middle school outcomes and student growth, and Oakley said PMS will prime pupils for a lifetime of learning by enhancing their social and emotional skills through rigorous academic offerings.

“The middle school initiative is really all about encouraging a sense of self-advocacy for kids,” he said. “We really want them to be in touch with what their goals and dreams are and how they translate academically; what they want to be two, five and 10 years down the road; what they want to study as they progress through school; how to manage their emotions as they interact with their peers and teachers; and how to work both individually and collaboratively to accomplish all of those things.

“I think the partnership school supports all of those,” he added. “The design of the school allows for collaborative approaches and social and emotional development. The classes the students take there, the access they receive from physically being on a major institution of higher learning and the foundation they get in those middle school grades will set them on a trajectory for success. These experiences may lay the groundwork to careers or higher education previously not considered.”

Engaging students in middle school — answering “Why?” at all possible times, specifically — is the key to launching the personal exploration needed to keep children focused in these important grades and beyond, said Dr. Eddie Peasant, who took over as SOCSD superintendent shortly after ground broke on the school.

“If they don’t see what their 'Why? is, then we stand a great chance of losing them,” he said. “I want this school to introduce our students to understanding what their own personal ‘Why?’ is, what they’re interested in, what they’re good at — even what they’re not good at — and allow us to shape their education in a way that allows them to explore those opportunities on a bigger stage. This is the time we get them on the track to the right avenues of learning.”

Excitement Now and for the Future

Kim Smith is one of the few Oktibbeha County residents whose current life almost completely revolves around the new school.

As an elementary education instructor focused on middle grades for the MSU Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education, all but one of her fall semester classes involved students observing live teaching at the new campus; as the mother of a sixth grader at PMS, she saw firsthand the educational outcomes of this new hybrid learning environment; and as the leader of the school’s parent-teacher organization, she also saw how families quickly embraced this unique opportunity.

A bulletin board encouraging critical thinking and reasoning in a PMS science room is pictured. Photo by Megan Bean, MSU Office of Public Affairs

“I was always excited about this project because I knew what opportunities it could bring,” Smith said. “Every school in this town already enjoyed a good relationship [with MSU], but this takes it to a new level.

“As a parent, I want everyone to know there’s a whole lot of excitement here from us and from the kids. For kids to be excited about learning and participating in all these new programs, that’s huge,” she added. “As someone who prepares future teachers, I want people to know how excited we are for it to help us produce better-prepared teachers for the entire state, and that’s going to make us all better. We can explain to them all day long the best practices and theory; we can even demonstrate it — and we do — to them, but it doesn’t mean anything until they see it for themselves in the classroom.”

That live look inside classrooms, Peasant said, fundamentally changes a teacher’s first-day perspective as a professional, and having cohorts of better-prepared middle school teachers could even change how the school district prepares students as they transition to and from those key grades.

“We’re very fortunate to have this opportunity to enhance the work we’re doing for middle schoolers, and there needs to be sufficient training because that age group is so different than [elementary and high school groups],” he said. “There are things that have to be addressed at that adolescent age to make a difference and keep them focused and successful. Right now, we can reduce the dropout risk for students with positive middle school experiences and fuel their desire to complete their education. Knowing we’re expecting children to do things different [at PMS] means we have to get them ready for that experience, and that experience also opens doors for them in high school they might not have access to before.

“For our teachers, [the MSU partnership] is about growth for them, too,” Peasant added. “They’re going to get knowledge and training from university faculty, of course, but they’re also going to be mentors for future teachers heading to our district and others across the state. That’s an exciting prospect, and it’s definitely a situation we’re happy to be part of.”

“The way we change the state of Mississippi is through education, and the way we change education is by putting out people that are ready to teach once they graduate,” Shaw said. “Everyone looks at this as the Partnership School benefiting the school district, but we, from the university’s standpoint, know we’re a greater beneficiary. It’s fantastic to see sixth and seventh graders there every day, but it warms my heart when I see college students learning firsthand what it’s like to be a teacher.”