Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Accountability team visits F-rated Gulf Highlands Elementary School in Port Richey

PORT RICHEY — Gulf Highlands Elementary School teachers have great expectations for their F-rated school.

"We're going to be an A school," first-grade teacher Kathy Clark told an accountability team of state and district educators Monday, when asked where she sees Gulf Highlands in three years.

"We're going to go down in history for making the most growth in the shortest period of time," fifth-grade teacher Sara Martin said in a separate focus group.

What will it take to get there? Quite a bit of hard work.

The downward trends in FCAT scores among all student groups point to some basic problems at the school that go beyond simply wanting to "make a difference" for kids, principal Kara Smucker told the team as it kicked off a two-day instructional review.

"We all want to make a difference," said Smucker, who took over during the summer. "But guess what? The data is telling us something different. We are not making a difference for all."

Why? Consider teacher turnover as a case in point.

Smucker said the school lost 20 staff members in a six-month period last year. Substitutes took over many classrooms, and student behavior worsened. Permanent teachers were tapped to help the subs control classrooms and write lessons.

Perhaps not surprisingly, teachers started calling in sick.

To get students to learn, teachers must be there, Smucker said, and a key goal for the year must be retaining a highly qualified staff.

That's just the beginning.

"There is a lot of professional development to do," said assistant principal Keri Allen.

More than half of last year's teachers had less than five years of experience. Allen and Smucker said many teachers need more direction in how to best engage their students. That means giving children opportunities to show what they know in a variety of ways, rather than simply lecturing and then asking whether kids "get it" and accepting a thumbs-up as an affirmation.

School literacy coach Fran Johns and math coach Leslie Sparkman said the staff had good intentions last year, but it didn't do everything it set out to do.

Teaching was not always aligned with school improvement goals, Sparkman said. School priorities were unfocused.

Several teachers agreed. They said in small interview groups that the past administration conducted too many meetings and that the concepts presented to try were rarely given time to succeed. A common sentiment was that teachers had "too much on our plate."

They said the school collected student performance data, but gave teachers limited help in how to analyze it. And they said they often got little support in dealing with behavior problems, which distracted other students who wanted to learn.

Smucker said she and Allen have tried in their short time at the school to make improvements. They restructured teacher teams to provide more joint planning. They changed reading lessons so that a second adult can help in every classroom. They also held three training sessions to give teachers some direction for the first weeks of classes.

Accountability team members spent several hours Monday and Tuesday visiting classrooms to see whether what they found represented the words they heard.

Their reviews were mixed, but trending positive.

Watching kindergartners work in centers while the teacher helped a small group with reading, reviewer Lisa Fisher said she was impressed.

"I see a lot of good things in this classroom," she said, noting that everything in the room was labeled and that all students were active. "There is not one student not doing their center. To have them this involved, this organized on the first day of the second week is great."

Visiting a fifth-grade class lesson on punctuation, reviewer Elena Garcia observed that the classroom — like many others in the school — had the beginnings of an educationally sound setup. But what appeared on the walls didn't jibe with the spoken lesson much, she said, leading her to wonder whether the organization was done more to comply with rules than to benefit instruction.

Still, Garcia said, nascent attempts to try new strategies and create a good learning environment should not be viewed as bad just because they're not perfected. It will take time to see how teachers integrate ideas into their instruction, she said.

"I can tell this school has gotten off on the right foot this year," Garcia added.

The accountability team will continue working with school leaders throughout the school year. Members plan to return to Gulf Highlands every four to six weeks to assess progress.

Another team is scheduled to begin working with Lacoochee Elementary this week.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

Accountability team visits F-rated Gulf Highlands Elementary School in Port Richey 08/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 8:57pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. This 'SNL' writer is cracking up Twitter with his replies to President Donald Trump's tweets


    Josh Patten is a writer for Saturday Night Live. Earlier this month, he began responding to President Donald Trump's tweets as if they were private texts to Patten.

  2. Snooty the manatee's death prompts outpouring of support, petition to move Confederate monument


    BRADENTON — The South Florida Museum aquarium remains closed Monday and tributes continue to pour in following the shocking death of Snooty, the beloved manatee who captured the hearts of …

    Four-year-old Katie Blair pays her respects to Snooty at a makeshift memorial in front of the museum on Sunday. Katie and her family has visited the aquarium to see Snooty four times this year. 
Snooty was the world's oldest living manatee in captivity and celebrated his 69th birthday Friday at the aquarium. Aquarium officials described Snooty's death as a tragic accident and is being investigated. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]

  3. What to watch this week: 'Midnight, Texas,' Shark Week specials


    It's that time of year again. No, not back-to-school month or geek convention season - it's Shark Week.

    Midnight, Texas, a new supernatural series on NBC, premieres at 10 p.m. Monday.
  4. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner: 'I did not collude with Russia' (w/video)


    WASHINGTON — Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, spent about two hours Monday answering questions from Senate investigators about his contacts with Russian officials, insisting he had not colluded with foreign agents before or after the 2016 presidential campaign.

    Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks to reporters outside the White House on Monday after meeting on Capitol Hill behind closed doors with the Senate Intelligence Committee on the investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. [Pablo Martinez Monsivais | Associated Press]
  5. Polk County officials urge owner to remove pet buried at public park

    Human Interest

    Lake Wales city officials are looking for the owner who buried their dead dog in a public park.

    Lake Wales city officials are looking for the owner who buried their dead dog in a public park. [Facebook]