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Success with SWIFT in Mississippi

From an interview with Dr. Alvin Taylor:

This is my fifth year as superintendent of the Meridian School District, and when I started, there were quite a few challenges ahead.

The district had been identified by the Mississippi Department of Education as a chronically failing school district for at least three consecutive years—with 70% of the schools within the district identified as a failing school. In addition, the United States Department of Justice was in the process of filing a lawsuit for allegations of the school district running a “school-to-prison pipeline.” So, to say that my plate was full would be an understatement.

My goals were to bring some structure to the district, create safe and orderly schools, improve student achievement, get the focus back on education, and provide equity within the entire district. There were quite a few things we had to do; but those were the goals I had coming in to the district, and I looked for programs and initiatives that could help us build our capacity.

I remember my first meeting with the SWIFT team, and I really believed that they’ve played an integral role in our improvements here in Meridian. The SWIFT stance on meeting the needs of the whole child, building relationships, and working with students through interventions—like the PBIS model—were the initiatives that were right down our alley. The first thing we had to do in Meridian was build relationships and rebuild bridges because the community, parents, and students had to trust the school system in order for us to make any gains. SWIFT played a major role in us regaining that trust.

I’ll say, first of all SWIFT IS an educational model - All Means All - the blending of special education and general education. SWIFT combines resources and focuses on all children and differentiating instruction in the classroom to meet the needs of all students. A big part of SWIFT is that there is no achievement without equity and SWIFT has done that for us.

SWIFT has provided us with significant professional development training, coaching, and mentoring—not just for our teachers, but also for our administrators. SWIFT plays a major role in building capacity with our leadership within the district so that they too can empower their teachers. This trickles down to the students, and from that, we build trust. We find success and that continues to repeat itself.

We’re very proud to be a part of the SWIFT movement. It’s always been a movement from the national level that students with special needs were to be included in general education—that education should be inclusive for everyone. Many school districts endeavor to do this; but true implementation with fidelity takes a lot of planning, a lot of training, and a lot of strategizing—and SWIFT helps us do this.

Our special needs teachers and our general education teachers all work as one for all of the students. Whatever the students’ needs are — whether they have special needs or behavioral, social, academic needs or if they are higher achieving, we try to meet the needs of all the children. So, we have to plan — lesson planning and team planning at the building level to meet the needs of all those children.  We have a leadership team, which meets monthly; and we work with SWIFT mentors. They help us come up with our strategy, our plan, our mission and vision; and we use that to move the district forward. It’s been quite successful.

What we’ve done, at the district level, is work on building capacity within our leaders and our teachers — helping our teachers come up with intervention strategies to help students who may have behavior issues or the at-risk student. So many times we ask our teachers to meet the needs of these students, but we don’t give them the tools to do so. SWIFT has helped us with that, arming our teachers and our administrators with the tools they need to meet the diverse needs of our students.

Through the help of SWIFT, I've seen our educators come up with all types of intervention strategies to help students who have the highest needs and the highest at-risk factors in their lives.  It’s been very successful, and we do our best to meet the needs of the kids one student at a time and one building at a time. Slowly but surely we’ve been moving forward. We’ve created the position of PBIS Director and there are PBIS Coordinators in every building. Those positions didn’t exist until we came in. With our work with SWIFT and the United States Department of Justice, we’ve put those support systems in place. We have PBIS Coordinators at the building level and at the central office level, and they’re all there to support the administrators to support the teachers. We do this through training, weekly staff development, lesson planning, and strategizing to help our teachers who are on the front line meet the needs of our children.

It’s always been my passion to go somewhere that I can make a difference. We have done that. This has been a lot of hard work and taken a lot of patience, but we are sitting here in our fifth year, and we are no longer a failing school district. We’ve gone from having 70% of the schools failing to no failing schools at all. So, for the first time in over a decade, we’re proud to say that no child in the city of Meridian attends a failing school and All Means All! 

 Dr. Alvin Taylor

Dr. Alvin Taylor is the superintendent of the Meridian Public School District in Meridian, Mississippi. Dr. Taylor received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Mississippi State University and his educational specialist degree from the University of North Alabama. He recently earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction when he defended his dissertation in December 2010 and graduated in May 2011.