Marcus Jackson, the Calcasieu Parish School Board’s newly appointed R3 Zone director, sounds ready for the job.
“I eat, sleep and breathe school improvement,” Jackson said.
Jackson, a Lake Charles native, will work with principals and staff members to improve academic standings in the parish’s 13 “persistently struggling” schools — those with poor performance scores and low graduation rates.
He has worked at the elementary, middle and high school levels as a teacher, assistant principal and principal.
“I enjoyed the classroom, and I was the voice of the community, the parent and child,” he said. “People saw my results, however, and really pushed me to reach higher than the classroom level.”
Jackson, who has a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University, has spent most of his career in low-performing schools, many of which were at-risk of state takeover. He said he earned a reputation for turning around schools in Clayton County, Ga., and Atlanta.
“I was strategically placed by the superintendent because of my track record for success,” Jackson said.
In 2015, he said, he attended Harvard’s School Turnaround Leadership Academy, where he worked with educational leaders and gained new insight on education in struggling districts.
“Without a positive and nurturing environment, learning cannot happen at a high level,” Jackson said.
Schools must address outside factors with planning and improvement efforts, he said, because “many of our students are coming in with non-academic problems like mental health, nutrition, housing and safety” concerns.
Jackson said everyone involved with the schools must feel a “sense of urgency” for these students.
“This is a life-or-death situation. I know this personally because it (education) saved me,” he said. “Who is responsible for school improvement? Everybody. Parents, personnel, people, pastors and politicians. Nobody gets a hall pass.”
Jackson said today’s culture differs markedly from that of 20 or 30 years ago. “Did we have students misbehaving? Was there poverty? Absolutely. I grew up in it. Did we have the fighting? Yes,” he said.
“But more than anything what we had was a sense of togetherness. The community was together.
“Personally, I think my generation dropped the ball. In an effort to give our kids everything we didn’t have we forgot to give them everything we had.”
Jackson said “social-emotional learning” will be the foundation for rebuilding the parish’s struggling schools. In the first 20-30 minutes of each day, he said, students will learn about “soft skills” — self-management, self-awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making.
Jackson said a “powerful shift in the culture of the school” can arise by simply focusing a few minutes each day on these skills, which are normally taught at home.
Jackson said performance scores and other numbers are important but that it’s just as important, if not more so, to sharpen the “affective” side of a student’s educational experience.
“We need to remember that we’re dealing with people first. Our kids are people. Our teachers are people,” he said. “Always operate from the affective domain first. Then once I’ve elevated you in this domain, then we can jump over to this (cognitive) domain.”
Jackson’s plans for academic improvement focus on strong reading skills, which he said are necessary to learning anything.
“Our students’ academic foundation is built on sand if they don’t have a strong early literacy background. And in lower-income communities that’s actually quicksand,” he said. “If there’s not plan for early literacy there is no plan for school improvement.”
Jackson said teachers should be aware of the standards for those levels below and above their class to ensure good students excel. And he said the recruitment of highly qualified and certified teachers is essential for school improvement.
“There’s a teaching shortage around the country and it is a state of emergency. It is a crisis. It’s something we really need to pay into,” Jackson said. “This district has put its money where its mouth is as far as funding teacher training. That’s all on the district’s dollar.”
A mutual trust between parents and community and school leaders is key to the success of the vulnerable group of students, teachers and schools in the R3 Zone, he said.
“We all need to be not only on the same page but reading out of the same book of excellence when it comes to quality instruction,” Jackson said.