Tupelo Public School Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou makes his way to his car after ribbon cutting to open the new Tupelo High School gym.

TUPELO • The Tupelo Public School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve the district’s application to become a District of Innovation on Tuesday.

Stewart Brevard McMillan, innovation program facilitator for the district, said she intends to have copies of the finalized application hand-delivered to the Mississippi Department of Education within the next two weeks – well in advance of the Dec. 3 due date.

Five printed copies will be delivered in binders along with an electronic copy.

“I’d like to thank Mrs. McMillan publicly for her hard work and dedication to this process,” TPSD superintendent Dr. Rob Picou said during the meeting. “I’m sure I echo her sentiments when I thank everyone who has participated in the process and submitted feedback or letters of support. We are very excited about the prospect of becoming a District of Innovation.”

TPSD board members were provided with printed copies of the application during the October board meeting to review prior to the November vote.

The only major change was the removal of one proposed waiver. The waiver to create a two-hour extensive block program for English learner students with zero to three years experience with English was removed. It will now instead be offered as an elective course instead of changing the students’ schedules.

The other four waivers will remain in the application. The first will allow special education students participating in Project SEARCH, a partnership with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services and North Mississippi Health Services, to be counted in the yearly graduation rate.

The second waiver will expand the course options for students in the middle college program who take dual-credit classes that count towards graduation and an associate degree.

The third waiver would allow someone like a retired teacher or business leader without an active teaching license to teach a college and career readiness course that all students, beginning with this year’s sophomores, will be required to complete.

The fourth waiver is related to Project Lead The Way, which is a program allowing students to pursue engineering, biomedical science and computer science tracks. At the middle school level, courses last for one semester and at the high school level, they last for a year.

The District of Innovation label and each of the four waivers will be approved or denied individually.

“I feel very confident based on our thoughtful planning, on our work and our communication with MDE that we will get approved for most of our waivers,” McMillan said.

The only waiver McMillan has reservations about is the Project Lead the Way Carnegie unit request because there are currently no other schools in the state where sixth grade students can receive high school credit for courses they take, but TPSD is “going to ask for it anyway.”

Regardless of whether that waiver is granted, the Project Lead The Way program will continue because the district feels strongly about the value and experience the curriculum offers young students, McMillan said.

The application itself is 82 pages, but with required attachments and an overwhelming 182 letters of support, McMillan expects the entire printed application to approach 400 pages in length. Those support letters are from district administrators, teachers, staff and community members.

After the application is handed over to MDE, district representatives will participate in interviews on either Dec. 16 or 17. Following that interview, MDE will present TPSD’s plan to the Mississippi State Board of Education on Feb. 20 and an official decision will be made on March 19.

“The official approval of the application doesn’t mean our work is done,” McMillan said. “It really means our work is starting, but I look forward to figuring out what is an authentic way to continue this conversation with the community.”

Community involvement has been integral throughout the District of Innovation process, starting with the first meeting on Sept. 26, 2018, to discuss the district’s greatest needs.

From that meeting, the needs identified were to close the achievement gap and focus on subgroups of students who need help – and that’s exactly what the District of Innovation designation and accompanying waivers will do.

McMillan said she has plans updates on District of Innovation progress with the community at annual meetings.

“This isn’t the end of community involvement,” McMillan said. “We want to grow and increase and continue to have community presence and participation in this process.”

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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