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Under the microscope | Turning three high schools around

Boca Ciega High battles to engage all students, lift a chronic D


Paula Nelson graduated from this school.

Her son is a student here.

In four years as principal, Nelson's interest in the success of Boca Ciega High School has always exceeded the professional.

Still, there's The Grade: D. Seven years in a row.

"It makes me sick to my stomach to see that because I know how hard all of the teachers and students are working," Nelson said. "The D's do not reflect the efforts of the school. It reflects one test, one day, one snapshot."

Nelson and her staff hope the results of the 2010 FCAT, set to come out soon, will lead to a better grade — and show state education officials that the school is improving.

Boca Ciega joins Lakewood and Dixie Hollins high schools in facing increased state oversight in the fall. Possible changes include a reshuffled staff, stepped-up teacher training and a new principal.

"I don't want to leave," said Nelson, who was an assistant principal for one year before she took the helm in 2006.

School officials are recommending to state officials that Nelson stay. If she does, the figures posted on the door to her office lay out the challenge:

Percent of students scoring at or above grade level in reading: 31.

Percent of lowest-achieving students making gains in reading: 44.

An air of achievement

Walk the halls of Bogie and it doesn't feel like a perpetual D school.

The school's ongoing $71 million renovation has put technological tools like Smart Boards and an agricultural fish tank in classrooms. The work should be completed in 2011.

A new building with shiny floors and walls painted alternately white, red, purple and green houses three floors of classes, including a load of advanced placement courses, engineering electives, and foreign language and marine biology classes.

In another building, the school has a 540-student magnet program for students who want to pursue careers in health and medicine. Nearby, about 185 teenagers participate in the school's rigorous Jr. ROTC program.

Teachers are clustered together according to discipline.

According to Nelson's numbers, 8 percent of the 105 faculty members are in their first year, while 44 percent have more than 15 years' experience.

Students chatter and laugh in between classes. But the halls quickly empty when a bell signals tardiness.

Inside one of Christine Brown's math classes, students spar and laugh with their teacher as she opens the class with a rundown of facts about the figure "159" — the number of school days so far — before reviewing homework.

"She's got the relationship piece down," Nelson says, watching.

Ron Friley, who teaches five periods of a popular elective course called communication technology, finds ways to incorporate basic reading into lessons on sign printing and T-shirt design. Every week, his students are to read a newspaper article, pull out vocabulary words they might not know and define them.

A "word wall" documents the progress with words like "prognosticate," "heinous" and "tableau." Students, on demand, recite the meaning of the growing vocabulary collection.

"It's not like we're just saying we're a D and we're going to hang with that," said Friley, also a Boca Ciega graduate. "We're all trying."

Challenge of poverty

Boca Ciega's challenges include a growing population of students from low-income homes.

In 2003-04, 27 percent of students qualified for the federal free and reduced price lunch program. Last year, nearly 50 percent did.

In more than an hour of conversation, though, Nelson never mentions student demographics as an obstacle to improvement.

She focuses on the need to engage students wherever they are academically, socially, behaviorally. There are many teachers at the school committed to doing that, Nelson says, but there are some who aren't.

"If you're willing to jump in and do whatever it takes, work above and beyond, you will have no trouble staying here," she said. "You can't walk into a classroom, close the door and do whatever you want."

Senior Ian Ward, 19, said his best teachers are the ones who don't give up on challenging students.

Ward, a tuba player who recently took the lead in the school's production of Bye Bye Birdie, said band director Frank Williams demands the best from everyone, even the students who act as if they don't want to work.

"He sees the potential there and he pulls it out of them," Ward said.

Nelson knows that's one of the things state leaders will be on the lookout for from all teachers.

The $500,000 question

In the meantime, Nelson and her staff have begun brainstorming ways to use about $500,000 in school improvement money targeted to 5 percent of the state's lowest performing schools.

Outside Nelson's office, posters are plastered with yellow and green Post-it notes, each representing an idea for the grant.

The most crowded poster has this title: "Major issues we should focus on for 10-11."

"Attendance" says one sticky note.

"Parental involvement" reads another.

Some teachers are trying to gain internal support to transform the campus into a fundamental school, a model that mandates parental involvement and student attendance.

Nelson doesn't oppose the concept, but she's letting teachers and parents handle that effort.

She has her hands full.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or

Boca Ciega

High School

924 58th St. S, Gulfport

Enrollment: 1,577

Grade: D for seven years

At or above grade level in reading: 31 percent

At or above grade level in math: 59 percent

2009 graduation rate: 78 percent

Boca Ciega High battles to engage all students, lift a chronic D 05/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 2:37pm]
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