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Florida's failing schools consider desperate measures until they make the grade

Gibbs High School principal Kevin Gordon talks with members of his staff Thursday during a teachers meeting. “I’m here because it’s my job and because it’s my passion. … I’m going to stay and fight for these kids, this community, our kids,” Gordon said.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Gibbs High School principal Kevin Gordon talks with members of his staff Thursday during a teachers meeting. “I’m here because it’s my job and because it’s my passion. … I’m going to stay and fight for these kids, this community, our kids,” Gordon said.

Kevin Gordon knew he had no time to waste.

The Gibbs High School principal stood in a cafeteria filled with 150 teachers Thursday and asked them: "Are you ready to work?"

He wasn't shy about offering teachers an out if they weren't.

"I'm going to stand up to the district and tell them what we need … until we make the grade. So, if you don't want to be here, this is your day of reckoning."

Hours later, state education officials released their growing list of Florida's poorest-performing schools: twenty-two schools, including Gibbs in St. Petersburg and Middleton High and Franklin Middle in Tampa.

"These are the most challenging schools in the state," said state Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith. "They have a long history of low levels of student achievement, low levels of graduation rate, and that has persisted over time."

The schools have earned the unhappy distinction known as "intervene" status, which demands they undergo rigorous restaffing and the most intense level of state monitoring possible. The schools are in districts as rural as Escambia and as urban as Miami-Dade and include five elementary schools, one charter school, a couple of technical schools and 10 high schools.

Seven of the campuses — including Middleton and Franklin — have been at "intervene" status for three straight years.

Hillsborough school officials expressed frustration that both schools, which have undergone drastic staffing shake-ups since being placed under state monitoring, made gains this year but narrowly missing getting off the list.

"Both of them were just one criteria away from making it out," said Jeff Eakins, the district's general director of federal programs.

Franklin improved in reading and math but didn't show adequate improvement among all groups of students, he said. Middleton, which has earned D grades every year for the past six years, fell just short of the number of points required.

"You're a better school," he said. "But you're still in that category, and sometimes that's wearing."

Still, Smith praised the district's progress at both schools and said Middleton might be able to leave the "intervene" category once school grades come out in November.

"They have been working very, very hard there," Smith said. "I commend the superintendent for her commitment to Middleton."

In 2008, five of 12 schools on the state's list came off within a year. But of the 15 schools listed in 2009, only two made it off this time around.

So, is the state's approach working?

Smith says it is.

"What would make me very discouraged," he said, "was if we had schools that had a history of low performance and the state was choosing to do nothing."

Smith said a state takeover of failing schools is not an option because the Department of Education doesn't have that authority. But it could recommend that schools be taken over by charter or management firms.

"There have been a couple that have closed, and students have been dispersed to other schools, but I have not seen charter (takeovers) yet."

For Gibbs, the newcomer to the list, the hard part is figuring out what it all means — and fast. School starts Tuesday.

Gibbs will not automatically be forced to reassign teachers, Smith said, unless Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen decides to do so.

"What we're looking for is just a very, very thorough, rigorous review of who is being asked to work in a school," he added. "Are they the right teachers? Are they the right leaders? Are they the type of educators that can move a school to the higher level?"

As of Wednesday, Gibbs still had eight vacancies in critical teaching staff, said Jim Madden, deputy superintendent in Pinellas. And the school has already gone through significant turnover in the past year — about 25 new teachers this summer and about the same last year, Madden said.

Smith also said he trusts Janssen's judgement in naming Gordon principal: "I think she's made a very good selection, and I have a lot of confidence in the person she's chosen for that school."

Huddled around circular cafeteria tables Thursday, Gibbs teachers began to consider major initiatives to try to transform the struggling school.

They discussed adding an eighth period to the school day. But what would they do with that extra time? Would they create more remedial classes? Add a study hall? Create more opportunities for students to take electives? Or just add the extra time onto the ends of each of the existing seven periods?

"I don't have a remedy right now," social studies teacher and union representative Rick Bose said. "We're trying to force a remedy on the quick."

When he posed a question on behalf of another staff member about whether administrators should be a part of the teachers' discussion of extending the school day, Gordon made it clear that he has every intention of sticking around to work with faculty to make the school better for students.

"I'm here," Gordon said, "because it's my job and because it's my passion. And if there's anyone in here who's not okay with that, you can leave the table. …You all are going to have to make a choice about whether you're going to stay or go. I'm staying. I'm going to stay and fight for these kids, this community, our kids."

Teachers stood and applauded. Eighty-four percent agreed to teach another period per day.

Janssen and her team plan on paying the teachers more for their extra time and effort. How much is still being negotiated.

Math teacher Ashenafi Nebro said it wouldn't be that big of a change for most.

"I don't leave this campus before 4:30 every day anyway," he said. "I never did."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

22

Florida schools that have earned "intervene" status, meaning they are subject to intense state monitoring. Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg and Middleton High School and Franklin Middle School in Tampa are among them.

15

Schools that made the state's list in 2009. Twelve made it in 2008.

7

Schools that have been on the list three straight years. Middleton and Franklin are among them.

Gibbs High School

St. Petersburg

Enrollment: 1,837

Free/reduced lunch: 62 percent

Minority students: 74 percent

Pertinent FCAT score: 23 percent read at or above grade level in 2009-10

Middleton High School

Tampa

Enrollment: 1,305

Free/reduced lunch: 93 percent

Minority students: 89 percent

Pertinent FCAT score: 22 percent reading at or above grade level in 2009-10

Franklin Middle School

Tampa

Enrollment: 570

Free/reduced lunch: 69 percent

Minority students: 90 percent

Pertinent FCAT score: among the lowest scoring students, 67 percent made gains in reading and 57 percent made gains in math in 2009-10 compared with the year before. However, those gains are lower than those posted by students in 2008-09.

Florida's failing schools consider desperate measures until they make the grade 08/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 1:19am]

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