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By Chevon T. Baccus APR
Executive Editor 

McLaughlin in Transition, Shooting for Improved School Grade

High Stakes in Second Year as Turnaround School


Last updated 11/13/2019 at 5:25pm

The stakes are high, but the leaders are optimistic. Unless McLaughlin Middle & Fine Art Academy raises its state grade this year the school faces the possibility of being closed, turned charter or run by a private company.

Co-Principals Sharon Chipman and Debra Wright-Hudson are reaching out to the greater Lake Wales community to share their goals for improvement and to ask for help. The school on Nov. 5 hosted its first Community Assessment Team meeting of the year, sharing with about a dozen interested stakeholders the progress being made and what support the school needs. After two years with state grades of D it is imperative that McLaughlin bring the score up to at least a C; school leaders say even a B grade is within their grasp.

Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd says McLaughlin has the right leaders to make the necessary transformation. Wright-Hudson is a first-year principal, working with Chipman, who has a positive track record with turnaround schools. Byrd said she chose the two women because she knows they will make the difference: "They're committed to this work. They're not only committed to the school but committed to the community and the teachers. Their passion is here."

Chipman and Wright-Hudson exhibited that passion at their CAT team meeting, walking the supporters through the progress students already are making and talking about their daily classroom visits where they identify what support teachers need. Chipman said the focus is on the lowest 30 percent and sub-groups of students who aren't making the grade, ensuring instruction is rigorous and aligned with state standards. The school also has support from a private contractor, Learning Sciences International, a Palm Beach firm that works with turnaround schools.

"Administrators are constantly in classrooms, seeing what's going on," Chipman said. "Every morning we meet as an administrative team. We talk about the needs of our teachers, what needs to happen, what needs to be supported. We create a to-do list to stay focused. We're tracking what's happening in classrooms, we're tracking what we're doing on a daily basis."

Wright-Hudson shared student test data, which in most cases she said shows double-digit improvement.

"Looking at it from a broad standpoint we're moving in the right direction and the data are showing it," Wright-Hudson said. "We've just got a lot more work to do, but our students are capable."

State grades are based upon a complex formula that factors in not just how high the students score, but how many are demonstrating improvement year over year.

This year McLaughlin has just over 500 students in grades 6-8. The principals say they are working hard to enhance the school climate, improve attendance and motivate students whose low test scores in the past left them feeling they weren't capable.

"What we've learned at McLaughlin is not that they can't achieve, their spirits don't let them know that they can," said Wright-Hudson.

Chipman said changing the culture is essential: "We have to make sure our students understand that they are loved, first of all, and we are here to love them, support them and educate them."

The school has set a high bar, not just for student achievement, but for discipline. Wright-Hudson said discipline referrals are down along with out of school suspensions.

Superintendent Byrd says the changes are evident: "It's a joy to see the kids engaged. It's a totally different feel, it's a totally different place. McLaughlin is a new place that is going to shock everyone and they're going to shine."

Even with early indicators showing double-digit progress in most areas, Wright-Hudson said gaining community support is essential to the school's success.

The next Community Assessment Team meeting will be held the second week in February, and school officials hope to double or triple the number of volunteers involved.

The school also is looking for tutors, especially for math, who can work with a student from 4:15 to 5:30 p.m. one day a week, giving them the extra help they need. Also, about two dozen students have been identified who would benefit from having a mentor, someone to come in, show them attention, offer encouragement and possibly share lunch with them – just an adult who cares. Volunteers are asked to contact the school for more details.

McLaughlin also could use sponsors for its "Monday Motivators," a food item, candy or other small token that the school's 75 employees receive each week along with a word of encouragement. Sponsors can provide funding or purchase the items for the school to distribute.

Wright-Hudson shared several causes for celebration, including 70 students – of the 114 eligible – inducted in to National Junior Honor Society; more than 50 community volunteers speaking to students as part of the Great American Teach-in; open houses with more than 200 in attendance; and more parents showing up for A-B honor roll parties.

She said the school also has increased technology available in the classroom and is using drones, helicopters, remote control vehicles and segways as motivators. The school also has an aggressive recruitment plan, with 5th graders from all five area feeder schools visiting and the school following up to encourage more students to choose McLaughlin for middle school.

McLaughlin also will be holding a winter gala Dec. 5 to showcase the school's extensive fine arts programs.

McLaughlin Middle School is located at 800 S. 4th St. in Lake Wales. More information is available on the school website at or by calling the school at 863-678-4233.


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