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STARKVILLE, Miss.–When the Mississippi Department of Education declared a state of emergency in the Oktibbeha County School District in September 2012 and appointed a conservator to take leadership over the district, Mississippi State University immediately offered assistance, said MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development David Shaw.

Mississippi State’s land-grant mission of teaching, research and service guides the university to do everything it can to help elementary and secondary schools as needed throughout the state, especially school districts going through unusual challenges.

Providing resources such as technical assistance and leadership training, as well as placing professional faculty and volunteers in the schools to tutor students are some of the ways MSU has supported the local district during a time of transition.

“From the top level, we sat down with the county school conservator and the state department and asked what they felt the most pressing needs were. This spring, faculty and staff, as well as volunteer students, have worked with young people in the schools. We also have worked with the conservator to assist with teacher development,” Shaw said.

“We have been so impressed with parents and young people in the school system. We see tremendous opportunity,” he added.

Bill Welch, bureau director for conservatorship with the Mississippi Department of Education, said there is no doubt the university’s assistance has had a positive effect in the district.

“It has been very good, in fact,” Welch said. “MSU is helping us identify problem areas, find solutions and do what we need to do to correct them.”

After the university began assisting Oktibbeha County School District in the fall of 2012, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to initiate consolidation of the district with the Starkville School District over a three-year period.

“The initial plans we wrote were really focused on how the county school system can come out of conservatorship. With the legislation, those plans had to be redirected to focus more on how we can help them be in the best position for consolidation,” Shaw said.

“The project is evolving, but the core focus has always been how we can help the county improve education for every child,” he said.

The legislation stipulated that MSU President Mark E. Keenum appoint a university representative to serve on the consolidation commission. Keenum asked Shaw to serve in that role.

Welch said Shaw has been a big asset as part of the consolidation commission.

“He’s a very knowledgeable person, and we’re proud to have him on board,” Welch said. “He is the eyes and ears for the university, and he lets us know the various ways they can assist,” Welch added.

MSU Dean of Education Richard Blackbourn said the College of Education has a long history of outreach to school systems around the state.

“Our outreach is extensive and does span across the state on a regular basis. That’s part of our culture in this college as it relates to the land-grant mission,” Blackbourn said.

After spending years of his own career as a public school teacher and principal before going into higher education, Blackbourn said he understands from experience many of the challenges facing Mississippi classrooms.

“We’re clearly in the business of helping, and we’re ready to assist districts regardless of what their needs are,” Blackbourn said.

Devon Brenner, MSU professor and head of the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education, said that during the past spring semester, much effort was focused on helping senior students prepare for mandated state testing in core subject areas.

“We laid a good foundation for work we will do in the 2013-14 school year,” Brenner said. In the fall, MSU faculty expect to help mentor newly hired teachers, many of whom may be MSU graduates, she said.

“All new teachers benefit from mentoring, so they will really hit the ground running and become strong teachers,” Brenner said.

Three MSU faculty members will spend a quarter of their work time in the Oktibbeha County School District to assist teachers with lesson plans, consider classroom management techniques, and help new teachers implement the strategies they learned in their teacher preparation program, Brenner said. They also will work with students, as well as teach model lessons.

The university’s Maroon Volunteer Center is coordinating additional help for after-school programs that offer tutoring and mentoring.

MSU’s Research and Curriculum Unit also will work in support of the district, facilitating a team-based leadership program designed to build sustainable leadership at all levels, including principals and teachers, for participating school districts.

Brenner emphasized that she and other faculty observed many good things already happening within the district. She echoed Shaw’s optimism for seeing improvements implemented effectively.

While acknowledging the district has many challenges left to tackle, Brenner said, “There are really strong teachers and talented administrators. A lot of really good teaching and learning is taking place,” she said.

Shaw said the university has previously collaborated with local school districts, and has particularly relied on area schools for providing field experiences for MSU students enrolled in the teacher preparation program.

Shaw said in addition to helping Oktibbeha County School District implement improvements during a transitioning period, the university will offer support in any way it can to the current district and the Starkville School District as they prepare for a consolidation.

“We already have several projects that are collaborative between the Starkville School District and Mississippi State, and we’re looking for ways to grow that even more, for example, with mentoring and training projects,” Shaw said. “We really see Starkville School District as a very close collaborator with Mississippi State.”

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