The elementary challenge: New principal looking forward to work at Cape's Jefferson school

Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Christa Turner monitors hall passing Monday at Jackson Middle School, where she has been assistant principal for five years. Turner will become the principal at Jefferson Elementary in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

In 14 years at Jefferson Elementary, principal Mark Cook has never been "some guy back off in the office."

Leading a school with Jefferson's academic and demographic challenges takes building and keeping good relationships with students' families and an establishment of the community's trust, he said.

Cook has visited his students' homes numerous times during his tenure for issues with academic performance, attendance, behavior and many other reasons, all in an effort to make himself visible and available, which he said are the most important things when it comes to student improvement.

"You have to have relationships," he said, and to build them, "you do that one on one. It's a physical, logistical thing. You visit where your parents are going to be, you talk to them a lot."

Cook's visits will end when he retires in May, but he believes his ways of connecting with students and parents to make a better school can continue with the hiring of a new principal, Christa Turner.

Turner is in her fifth year as assistant principal at Jackson Middle School. She was previously a middle school teacher. She holds a bachelor's degree in education from Southeast Missouri State University and a master's degree in school administration from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Turner lives in Jackson and is the mother of three children, ages 9, 2 and 1. Her husband, O.J., works in medical sales.

Turner said she sees Jefferson as a school with some unique challenges but that there are some good things going for students and she wants to see those things continue.

"It will be totally different from what I have been doing, but I am looking forward to that," Turner said of her decision to change positions into the leader of a school that has a different level of achievement and demographics than Jackson Middle School.

Ninety percent of Jefferson's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, while only 35 percent of Jackson Middle School students are considered eligible. Students at the middle school have also traditionally done well on standardized tests, while Jefferson posts some of the lowest scores in the district on Missouri Assessment Program tests. Student achievement there, however, has improved steadily under Cook's leadership.

In the past five years, scores on MAP tests, which are taken by third- and fourth-grade students, have risen or stayed steady in both subject areas, which are math and communication arts. From 2006 to 2011, the percentage of students testing proficient or advanced in math on MAP tests doubled. In communication arts, that percentage rose by around 10 points. Attendance at Jefferson has held steady for four years, also. The percentage of teaching staff in the school who have advanced degrees has gone up by 23 percent.

Jefferson did not meet proficiency targets on MAP tests in 2011 and is in improvement level 3, which requires action in one of these areas: replace failing staff, institute new curriculum, decrease management authority, appoint outside expert to advise, extend school year orprovide professional development.

Turner has four years of experience with professional learning communities, which are strategies and interventions used by a school's staff to continually assess and promote students' grasp of concepts and various subjects. The Cape Girardeau School District is expanding professional learning communities into all buildings, and Turner said she thinks she can help Jefferson see more success with their use.

Turner said it is important for administrators to realize what can be controlled in a school, such as students' learning environment and opportunities.

"There have to be certain procedures and strategies in place to deal with issues having to do with academic performance and behavior," she said. "Whatever it is, we have to come up with ways to deal with it."

Turner wants to continue programs led by Cook that promote better reading and math skills, student engagement strategies used by staff and instructional practice inventory that measures progress of staff with student engagement.

She said she is also looking forward to building relationships with the community and parents and that moving from middle to elementary school administration will be a transition for her.

"There is a lot to learn," she said, "but I am willing to take advice."

She has already talked with Cook about the relationship piece of the picture. Cape Girardeau School District superintendent Dr. Jim Welker said he is hopeful Cook and Turner can find more opportunities to work together toward making the transition smooth.

Welker said Cook has done a good job in terms of focusing on school improvement and academic performance and that Turner's knowledge and understanding of current instructional practices will allow Jefferson to continue on the right track.

Jackson assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher described Turner as a strong teacher who quickly builds relationships and knows what is supposed to happen in the classroom.

Turner will begin in her new position in August. After 32 years as an educator, Cook said he still plans to be somehow involved in education and that he is considering several different avenues.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1651 W. Independence St., Jackson, MO

520 S. Minnesota Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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