Dr. Rob Picou, Superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District, speaks to teachers and administrators during the district’s 2018-19 end of the year convocation Tuesday morning at the Performing Arts Center at Tupelo High School.

TUPELO • The Tupelo Public School District Board of Trustees is working to finalize its application for designation as a District of Innovation as the December deadline approaches.

Stewart Brevard McMillan, who was hired in 2018 as the innovation program facilitator for the district, presented board members with copies of the application at its monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The board will read over the application and vote on whether to approve it on Nov. 5.

The application was initially due on Nov. 1 but the date has been extended to Dec. 3, McMillan said.

The legislation allowing District of Innovation designations was passed by the Mississippi State Senate in 2015. The statute allows for five districts to be approved per year. There are currently seven, including Oxford School District and Corinth School District.

The primary benefit of the District of Innovation designation is waivers schools can receive that allow for more autonomy. TPSD is requesting five waivers that will support existing programs for students.

The first waiver would 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.

There are currently eight students with severe significant cognitive disability who go to North Mississippi Medical Center and take a class focused on employability and job skills. Those students will complete three internships with the hospital with the long-term goal of being offered a job or finding one elsewhere.

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.

There are currently 11 students in the program on the Associate of Arts track. There are also plans in place to create an Associate of Applied Science track for students who want to go straight to work after high school instead of pursuing a four-year 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 waiver would allow middle school students to pair semester-long courses to count as a Carnegie unit towards graduation, so they can earn high school credit during middle school.

The fifth and last waiver would create a targeted program for English learner newcomers who have zero to three years experience with English. There are currently specific requirements related to seat-time and requirements for content areas at the elementary level, but the waiver would allow for a two-hour extensive block to help students get an English level base to help them succeed in other classes.

“Our goal is to make sure all students are college and career ready and the way our application is set up, we’ve created cohorts by grade band,” McMillan said.

Pre-K through fifth grade will focus on foundational skills and career opportunities. Sixth through eighth grade will focus on career exploration. High school will focus on career enhancement, as students will have some idea of their strengths and potential career opportunities.

TPSD Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou said the entire application is focused on the board’s goal “to create a college and career ready vision for our school district.”

“It will provide greater flexibility for teachers, principals and district support staff to design innovative programs,” Picou said. “It’s been a collaborative process and we’re really excited about the prospects of becoming a District of Innovation.”

McMillan said she had received 173 letters of support for TPSD’s pursuit of the District of Innovation designation as of Tuesday. They will be included in the final application submitted to the Mississippi Department of Education.

Those letters were submitted by TPSD staff members, principals and teachers from schools across the district and community members, including Mayor Jason Shelton.

Letters of support will be accepted through Nov. 1, and McMillan joked with the board that she’d like to have to take the application to Jackson in a wheelbarrow due to an overwhelming number of letters.

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