NEW PORT RICHEY
When teachers returned to Calusa Elementary from summer break, they gathered together to face facts.
Their school had become Pasco County's only D-rated elementary school, downgraded from a B only one year earlier. New principal Kara Merlin and her leadership team detailed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test data, which showed (among other things) big drops in math achievement, and then asked the teachers how Calusa got there.
They wrote thoughts on sticky notes:
"Lack of common grade level planning."
"Too much time testing."
"Need more understanding of how to use data effectively."
They organized the ideas into lists, and set about tackling the problems that were within the school's control.
"Everything looks very different this year," said assistant principal Christine Ramirez, herself at the school for just one year.
The changes include some small things: Teachers now send an e-mail to the cafeteria with the number of kids planning to buy school lunch, instead of having students miss class time to hand-deliver that form.
And there are more substantial changes: The school invested almost all of its Title I federal funds into new classroom technology, including overhead projectors, document cameras and digital cameras.
"This was a big change, and needed," Merlin said of the latter decision. "We really need to keep kids excited about learning."
Kay Stannard has taught at Calusa for 17 years under five principals. This year, she gave up her regular classroom to run the school's new science lab — an amenity many elementaries don't have. She's helping other teachers incorporate science into other subjects.
Last year, 47 percent of Calusa fifth-graders passed the science FCAT.
Students positively buzz about the science lab, where they get to wear special lab coats and goggles as they examine bugs under glass and perform all sorts of hands-on activities. Dozens of fourth- and fifth-graders showed up for the first meeting of Stannard's new before-school science club, and talked up the experience to younger kids who can't wait for their turn.
"We're going to do some really bizarre things because why would they want to come back if we didn't?" Stannard said.
She views such transformations as valuable for Calusa, though she retains a healthy skepticism that the school's D was a blip rather than a true picture.
"The new attitude is a breath of fresh air," Stannard said. "Every time you have a change, you have a chain reaction. This one has been very uplifting. … The attitude is, 'We can do it.' And it's not just lip service."
'A common language'
Other changes quietly happened behind the scenes.
They revised planning schedules so teachers could collaborate more, even offering flexible work hours so teams could meet before or after class time. They added more clubs and activities for students. They reduced the number of school celebrations in order to keep kids focused on learning.
The school also began offering teachers more professional development on the campus, along with pay to get it done without having to hire subs all the time. Teachers want to learn about better ways to incorporate technology into their lessons, or to evaluate student data, for instance, Ramirez said, but they don't want to be pulled from their classrooms to do it.
On a recent morning, such efforts were in full force. An hour before students arrived, a group of special education teachers met in an office conference room to learn about new methods.
Out in a portable classroom, teachers attended lessons in how to enter student test results in specific computer programs and then read and use the information to drive their instruction. No esoteric talk about the philosophy of teaching and learning. This was a nuts-and-bolts application for teachers to use every day.
"We are now speaking a common language," math teaching coach Michelle Hanson said. "It's a piece that is kind of difficult for some because they're not used to it. … But I think they're really receptive because they can see the results."
Students get the sense that there's a new game in town, too.
Fourth-grader Bailey Conover sees it in her classroom, where she was pinning a paper leaf to the class reading tree. Every student adds a leaf when they complete a book, with the goal to fill the branches. Every classroom has expanded its book selections for students, filling bookshelves picked up from Sanders Elementary when it closed.
"We're setting our goals for more reading," Bailey said.
Fifth-grader Lauren Knott notices it even in the school corridors.
"Now we have to stay in a straight line all the time," Lauren observed, referring to new rules that Merlin said have decreased discipline problems in just three weeks.
Working side by side
All of this takes place in the shadow of next-door Ridgewood High School, which faces a major overhaul of its own as one of the state's identified lowest-performing schools. As part of the same feeder pattern, the two schools have joined efforts wherever possible, sharing practices and philosophies that their leaders hope will lead to higher achievement all around.
Both schools, for instance, have begun to address similar attendance problems. Just as Ridgewood discovered rampant class skipping and has begun seeking ways to get students to stay in classes, Calusa found that nearly a quarter of its students missed 10 or more days of school during the year.
One simple fix at Calusa has been to have teachers call the parents of any absent student, and to contact a school social worker if the number of absences surpasses five.
Both schools also are adopting new systems of evaluating individual student data in hopes of catching potential academic barriers before they become insurmountable.
Through this all, Calusa is not shying from its D or denying it. Instead, the team of administrators, teachers and staff are talking about it — not only among themselves but also with parents and students — and asking themselves what each player can do about it.
D can stand for "dynamic," after all, Merlin said. In science, that's energetic action.
"This is something that is going to force change in our system," she said.
And she has no doubt that change will succeed. The other day, Merlin and Ramirez put red paper hearts around the teacher work area with the words "You make Calusa 'A'mazing! Keep up the 'A'wesome work!" on them (attached to coupons for free McDonalds breakfast sandwiches, to say thanks).
"Our goal is to make an A. Absolutely," Merlin said. "You look at the schools nearby with similar populations. If they can make an A, there's no reason we can't."
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.