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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.