A military cadence played in the background as a dozen or so fourth-grade students filed into the classroom at Eastside Elementary School on a recent Saturday morning. Teachers donned fatigues or camouflage for the occasion. So did some of the students.
It was, after all, a boot camp — albeit one just for writing.
The students sat in groups or one-on-one with teachers, crafting stories and working on grammar and commonly misspelled words. Writing coach Michelle Barnes, a new addition to the school this year, emphasized structure, word choice and the importance of writing with voice and detail.
"You don't want to leave the reader with any questions," Barnes told a small group of girls. "You want to paint such a vivid picture in the reader's mind that they don't have any questions."
The morning's mission was urgent.
Last year, fewer than one-third of Eastside's fourth-graders, the only elementary grade tested, were considered proficient on the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, one of several factors that contributed to the school earning the county's first "F" grade from the state.
With the new writing coach and weekly boot camps, they are hoping to pull up the writing score, along with others.
It's just a small part of a massive effort to turn the school around this year and prevent it from drastic consequences if it fails to improve. Across the county, a similar situation is unfolding at Fox Chapel Middle, which earned its second consecutive "D" grade last year, despite showing significant gains.
Both schools are being transformed, and midyear assessments are showing some promise.
But will it be enough?
• • •
Eastside this year has a new principal and assistant principal. Roughly 16 percent of the teachers are new. The school has added instructional coaches in the core subjects to help both teachers and students.
Principal Mary LeDoux, who came to the school after a successful run at Brooksville Elementary, implemented a dress code. She added mandatory nightly reading assignments. She has worked to change the culture. The school, in the Hill 'N Dale community east of Brooksville, has started a student safety patrol and added an adult mentoring program. The neglected, out-of-date media center has been given new life. Businesses have stepped up to help in greater numbers.
And one of the biggest changes: Student performance data is everywhere — in the classrooms, lining the hallways. Students are encouraged to study it and set goals. Expressions like "data chats" and "owning data" have become part of the vernacular.
Students are coming up to teachers, asking, "What score do I need to do to get to the next level?" LeDoux said.
"That's exciting to us.
"I think that years ago this school was the school to go to," she said. "We have great teachers here, and we have great kids. They just lost some focus."
LeDoux calls herself a focus queen.
Uniforms were put in place because they've been shown to help student behavior. Mandatory nightly reading began after LeDoux saw a study about the close correlation between reading and overall performance.
School officials have taken a keen look at past deficiencies.
For years, Eastside didn't have a media specialist, the result of cost-saving measures. This year, the school brought in a new specialist.
An inventory of the collection of materials found it to be seriously lagging, with the average age of books hovering around 20 years. Community groups and another school have donated money and books to Eastside.
"The Hernando County community has wrapped their arms around Eastside," LeDoux said. "Every time I turn around, it's, 'What can we do for Eastside?' "
The school has honed in on its culture, making it a place where students want to come.
"It's all about turning around the culture of the school," said Ed Finch, the school's math coach.
LeDoux says Eastside is beginning to close some of its academic gaps.
"We're seeing that kids are making growth," she said
One big area is in writing.
In December, 54 percent of students passed a narrative assessment, compared with just 19 percent the previous year. On the expository portion, 47 percent passed, compared with 21 percent last year.
"We have improved greatly, I am so happy to say," Barnes said. "It has taken a tremendous amount of hard work and lots of prayers."
The school also has seen some gains in math and mixed results in reading.
LeDoux's goal this year is simple: to improve the school's grade to a "C."
• • •
Fox Chapel is in its second year under principal Ray Pinder — and its second year of trying to improve the school's state grade.
Already, there have been some successes.
In Pinder's first full year, the school gained 27 points toward a higher grade — one of the few schools to show gains in the state grading system. It missed a "C" by just 12 points.
Pinder thinks the school will be able to make up the difference this year.
"I'm pretty darn confident that it's going to happen," he said. "I don't think that I've ever worked with a staff that has worked harder and put more into it than I have at Fox Chapel."
The midyear data supports it, he said.
This year's eighth-graders have shown a 10 percent jump in proficiency in science compared to last year's students. Seventh- and eighth-graders have improved in math, though sixth-graders have regressed. The reading scores are up overall for all three grades.
The data is important. But one of Pinder's biggest priorities — similar to the situation at Eastside — is changing the school's culture.
Beginning this year, Pinder has put in place a program called the Leader in Me.
The goal: to make Fox Chapel known as a school of student leadership.
He wants students to play a more active role in school improvement, getting away from a top-down approach.
"All of this that we're talking about is school culture," he said. "Yes, we need to work on the academics, and yes we're working on that.
"But above all else, in my opinion, you have to change the culture of the school."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.