'I'm here so I can pass
Cox Elementary's uphill battle
52 Percent of Cox Elementary School students proficient in reading
41Percent of Cox students proficient in math for 2006-2007
75Percent of Cox students proficient in writing for 2006-2007
13Percent of Cox students proficient in science
0 Number of times the school has made "adequate yearly progress" under No Child Left Behind
Source: Florida Department of Education
DADE CITY — Fourth-grader C.J. Hillman could have been at home playing football.
Third-grader Tatyana Brown could have been practicing her gymnastics.
But on this cloudless Saturday morning, these two Cox Elementary students joined nearly half of the school's 191
third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in classrooms, studying math.
"I'm here so I can pass the FCAT," 9-year-old C.J. explained as he sat in the library waiting for his teacher to arrive.
Tatyana, also 9, said she asked her mother for permission to attend the 2½-hour Saturday sessions, which ran for the six weeks leading to the annual exam that begins Tuesday, "in case I haven't learned something in class that I'm going to learn here today."
Cox has a lot riding on its students' FCAT results. The school has not made "adequate yearly progress" on the test in the five years that the federal government has monitored the outcomes.
If it misses again, the school faces "restructuring." That could mean drastic measures, such as an overhaul of the entire staff or a redrawing of the school's attendance zones, though officials have signaled their plans would not go that far, instead focusing on areas such as teacher training.
Still, principal Leila Mizer and her staff wanted to make every effort possible to ensure their students — mostly black and Hispanic, mostly poor, and with a large percentage whose first language is not English — get every opportunity to succeed. The school regularly has offered free programs, often with teachers volunteering their time, as families here can't necessarily afford all the extras that wealthier families might take for granted.
Saturday math camp represented the school's latest effort to meet students' academic needs. And despite the kids' comments, it wasn't all about prepping for the FCAT, though the test is never far from mind. Last year, just 41 percent of the D-rated school's FCAT takers scored at or above grade level in the subject.
Rather, Saturday math camp was all about the skills and how to use them.
When students grapple with their basic skills, Mizer said, the last thing they need is FCAT rallies, prize giveaways or lessons in how to game the test for the best score. What they need is exposure to the concepts they need and time to practice.
"We're making sure that we're not just teaching the skills, but that the kids actually have the opportunity to apply what they know," assistant principal Latoya Jordan explained.
And with the school day so filled already, it also meant looking for time outside of regular classes.
No one was required to attend Saturdays. Not the students. Not the teachers. Yet there they were, bright and early, working on the concepts of perimeter, area and other measurements. Fifth-graders went more in-depth than third-graders, but throughout the school, the focus was the same: honing the math skills that have eluded them.
"We just stress that with little time, we have a lot to learn," said fifth-grade teacher Alison Prescott, who was working with fourth-graders. "I love it, actually. … They're all eager to learn. It's refreshing. I want all our kids to be able to achieve their highest potential."
A group of third-graders grew frustrated as they tried to measure the size of a puddle of water their teacher had spilled onto the table. But they grew excited as she showed them different ways to take measurements, bringing out tools ranging from a measuring tape to centimeter blocks and ultimately talking about ways to estimate.
Some used their fingers to add, while others computed quickly in their heads.
They welcomed the help, even if they might have preferred to be at home playing games.
"I kind of get shy and nervous, then I forget everything I know" when testing, third-grader Alberto Diaz said. "I also go to after-school" for help.
Fifth-grader Abigail Mitchell worked to solve a problem dealing with different fence sizes and how much she would need to enclose a piece of land. The question involved geometry, algebra and money, among other math skills.
She said she was glad to have the extra opportunity with teachers to work on her math.
"I need to get better because I struggle sometimes," she said after correctly completing the problem.
That's why the school created the Saturday classes, with a student-teacher ratio of 5-1. It's also why it launched Friday afternoon math boot camp for all fifth-graders.
Several teachers and the assistant principal would take groups of eight to 10 students each Friday to review the week's lessons. The kids were broken up by their ability on the skills being taught each week.
Jordan spent one recent session helping students practice decimals and metric units. She also gave the kids some simple ideas of how to use drawings to remember basic concepts, such as sketching out a back yard and then putting three feet in it, each foot labeled "12."
To keep the students attentive, Jordan had them play Simon Says, but all with a math focus: "Simon says turn counterclockwise 270 degrees." A few minutes later, she asked them to write their own word questions based on the day's lesson and then solve them.
"Carlos walked to the store and bought 5 feet of yarn," one boy wrote. "How many inches does he have?"
And on it went for an hour in the chilly, air-conditioned room.
Fifth-grader Thomas Aungst said he believes his teachers are providing him what he needs to know to do well, both on the FCAT and in years to come.
And although everyone tries not to focus on the FCAT, Thomas and other students know it's out there.
"I do care," he said. "My grandma said I'm going to get on top of it. She's going to make me work at home and school."
Third-grader Jakeevis Pearson, who attended the Saturday classes, admitted to being "nervous real bad" about the test.
"I might put the answer and it might be wrong," he said. "I'm going to pray."
Part of the issue, third-grader Adriana Farr said, is the knowledge that a poor FCAT score can force third-graders to repeat the grade.
And that's why Cox educators aimed to keep their students' minds not on the test but on the skills, even though the test remains a reality and its results could affect the entire school.
"We try to teach the kids to be lifelong learners and not just FCAT learners," Jordan said. "If you teach kids how it applies to everyday life, that is more meaningful."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
(813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.