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In Mississippi, High Standards Help Our Students Achieve

As a little girl in Gulfport, I dreamed of being a teacher. My grandmother used to tell me stories of how I would spend my playtime pretending to teach my stuffed animals, reading to them and guiding them through the ABCs.brashear

But fast-forward 15 years, and I was engaged in a very different type of play: I was a stage manager in New York City, helping cast actors in roles and working behind the scenes at theaters. Fast-forward another few years, and I was a social worker in Georgia, working with families who were struggling to make ends meet. There wasn’t much play involved in that gig, but like being in a play, it put me into other people’s shoes and helped me understand the world from different perspectives.

Now, lo and behold, I’m a teacher—what I always wanted to be growing up—and I’m back in Gulfport. I work with the lowest-performing students in some of our highest-poverty schools, and although it’s not an easy job, I love it. Nothing’s more amazing than helping a struggling child make progress and get on the path to success.

Although my three careers might seem completely different on the surface, they all depend on an important idea: belief. Belief that a story can be made into reality, that a family can make it out of poverty, that a kid can learn what they need to achieve their dreams.

Every day, I show my students that I believe in them—even more than they believe in themselves—by challenging them to meet high standards. Here in Mississippi, our College and Career Readiness Standards and Mississippi Assessment Program help teachers like me ensure that our students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. With the standards, I encourage my students to think critically and apply their knowledge in real ways. In short, we use these standards because of a passionate belief: that all of our kids can rise to the challenge of meeting the standards, and if they do, they’ll be on the path to the success that they so deserve.

The standards—and the belief that underlies them—are making a difference here in Gulfport School District and all around Mississippi. Statewide, our fourth graders made gains in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and our latest state test results show that Mississippi students are remaining stable or improving. Here in Gulfport, we’re proud that 85 percent of our students passed the state English II assessment, and 88 percent passed the Algebra I assessment, compared to 67 percent and 64 percent, respectively, statewide. Gulfport School District’s graduation rate is at an impressive 88.7 percent—higher than the statewide rate of 81 percent and the national rate of 83 percent.

Our students are defying expectations and making progress. And to me, this shows that they live up to what we believe about them. If we believe our students can achieve more—and if we give them the goals and support to do so—they will.

Our beliefs are what drive so many of us here in Mississippi. Belief has shaped my life, carrying me from theaters in New York City back to classrooms in Gulfport. Now, if we show our young people that we believe that they can succeed—if we continue to support them with high standards and assessments that help them grow—then I have no doubt they will continue to rise to the challenge.

Sheila Brachear is currently a Mentor Teacher/Literacy Coach for the Gulfport School District in Gulfport, MS. She has been an educator since 2008. Her teaching experience has been focused on helping students, particularly fourth graders, become successful readers who understanding complex grade-level texts, regardless of their current level of reading.

This is a longer version of this Letter to the Editor in the Mississippi Sun-Herald.