The Bottom Line
Leaving ‘No Child Behind,’ getting every child ahead
By Tray Smith
Walking into Escambia County Middle School principal Zickeyous Byrd’s office on Thursday, the first student I laid eyes on was wearing a blue polo shirt. Trying to figure out why the student, an eighth grader, was not wearing a standard ECMS green or yellow uniform shirt, I asked Mr. Byrd if ECMS Preparatory School students have a special dress code.
I went to ECMS to interview Mr. Byrd for this column about his efforts to turn around the once troubled middle school. I was unaware that eighth grade takeover day would be occurring simultaneously when I scheduled the interview, but I was proud to witness the activity. Eighth grade takeover day, like so many of Mr. Byrd’s other initiatives at ECMS, is an unconventional yet creative activity that helps motivate students to become more involved in their own education. It is through such out of the box thinking that Mr. Byrd has, in three years, done what no principal in Atmore history has done before. He has taken ECMS from the brink of failure and turned it into a model school.
Mr. Byrd has set clear expectations for his teachers and students at ECMS and he is determined to meet them. He is guided in his efforts by a clear vision of what he wants to achieve. Everything he does is rooted in his core belief that every child can learn.
In order to ensure that all of his students are learning, Mr. Byrd divides the Alabama Course of Study for each subject on each grade level into four parts during the summer. He gives teachers pacing guidelines so they are aware of what students should know and when they should know it. He then develops a cumulative test for each quarter that is given to all his students. He uses the test to construct data that tells him how many students in each period for each teacher are scoring “proficient” (they must score 70 percent or higher) on the test, which is designed to ensure teachers are following the course of study guidelines.
The data is broken down by question, so Mr. Byrd can monitor specific parts of the course of study a class may be failing to understand. On his computer, Mr. Byrd showed me a graph of four teachers’ performance data. One teacher had a red graph, which indicated less than 70 percent of her students were proficient in that period. But Mr. Byrd showed me data for the same group of kids in other classes and much larger percentages scored proficient. To correct the problem, Mr. Byrd said, “I had to go to that teacher and say, why do these kids understand the information here, but they cannot get it in your class?”
Browsing through another set of data, I realized one teacher had astronomically high test scores for every period except one. In that class, fewer than 10 percent of the students were proficient, the inverse of the teacher’s other classes. I asked Mr. Byrd why that class was performing so low.
It turned out a group of boys in that class were “grouping together and disrupting things.” So Mr. Byrd talked to them about wrestling, brought in music, and employed other techniques to get them interested. He explained the consequences of their actions, and told them they would have to repeat the course this summer if they did not buckle down and work harder. He gave the teacher a model to get the students interested, and he intimidated the group of troublemakers into compliance.
Mr. Byrd’s efforts have been proven to work. Over Mr. Byrd’s two-year tenure at ECMS, the school has met all of its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals.
AYP is measured by a state administered test as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. The middle school’s performance on those tests proves that Mr. Byrd’s own test and initiatives are working.
Tying the middle school’s success into national politics, I asked Mr. Byrd how he felt about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which is despised by many educators.
Mr. Byrd understands, however, that leaving no child behind does not mean keeping any child from getting ahead. This summer he created two schools in one building when he established Escambia County Middle Preparatory School. Prep school students arrive every day at 6:50 a.m. so that they can take an additional period. By the time they leave the middle school, they will have completed all of their ninth grade math, science, computer and foreign language requirements. They will be able to take the Alabama High School graduation exam in math and science during their freshman year.
For all of their hard work, Prep school students get rewarded. Mr. Byrd took them to Walt Disney World over spring break and designed fundraisers that allowed some students to go for free. They also have the opportunity to join the rest of the student body every Friday at Fun Friday events, which students are allowed to attend if all of their teachers sign a waver saying they have done all of their work, passed and behaved respectably during the week.
As I interviewed Byrd, the students were challenging their teachers to a basketball game in the gym.
When I asked Mr. Byrd what his vision for the Prep school is, he said he ultimately wants to include seventh grade and provide more art, dance and drama classes.
However, it cost roughly $6,000 a year to get a teacher to arrive on campus early enough to teach prep school classes, and Byrd does not have enough money to fulfill his vision yet. With the coming economic development opportunities, however, the city of Atmore and the community will hopefully get on board. Corporate officials are looking for places to train their workers and educate their kids and Escambia County Middle Preparatory school is now the most promising educational institution in the area.
Forty five students currently attend the Prep school, but Byrd hopes the number will grow.
Byrd is glad the Prep school is inspiring students to work harder, and parents to provide more support.
With such high standards, Byrd is obviously a demanding boss.
Next year, Escambia County High School will receive, perhaps, its most prepared freshman class ever. Some students will have already completed several of the credits they need to graduate, and many of them will take, and likely pass, the graduation exam in the fall. Coming up with programs to keep them involved will be a task for incoming principal Harvey Means, but ECMS is a great model for ECHS to follow.
When I walked out of Mr. Byrd’s office, I met a student nicely dressed in a green button-up shirt. He was an eighth grader, and he had taken over as Mr. Byrd. But more importantly, Mr. Byrd has taken over Escambia County Middle School. Hopefully, we will have generations of successful students to thank him for.
Tray Smith is a political columnist for the Atmore Advance. He is a student at Escambia County High School and can be reached at tsmith_90@ hotmail.com.