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Hernando County School Board chairwoman urges investigation on grades

BROOKSVILLE — School Board Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield has a two-step plan.

First, get superintendent Wayne Alexander to leave, as she puts it, "as soon as possible."

Then, find out whether elementary school administrators in the district truly have been straying from the district's official grading policy, and if so, which ones.

"We need to find out how far this reached," Bonfield said. "We need to know what was going on out there."

Bonfield informed her fellow board members at a regular meeting Tuesday that teachers from two elementary schools approached her after news coverage of changes to the district's grading policies that would eliminate the grade of zero.

They told her administrators had already informally endorsed a policy that drops zeros for missed assignments and another that sets a minimum F grade at 49 percent. According to Bonfield, the teachers said this was happening before the ideas even came before the School Board in June.

"The administration at our schools has highly recommended and encouraged us not to give zeros or grades below 50 percent," Bonfield recalls the teachers saying.

That and the handling of the Nature Coast Technical High out-of-county student admission debacle angered her enough to seek support to oust Alexander, who should have been on top of both issues, Bonfield said.

She got the support of two other board members, and negotiations to end Alexander's contract were still ongoing Thursday, Bonfield said. She has said she will move to fire Alexander if he won't agree to leave on his own.

Board member Sandy Nicholson, who up to now has defended Alexander, told the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday that she now supports the move.

"I wish things had turned out differently, but in the last two months I don't think he's made the best decisions for the district," Nicholson said.

Alexander has declined to comment.

• • •

Bonfield on Thursday identified the two schools that employed the teachers who approached her about the no-zero policy: Eastside and Westside elementary schools. But one principal disputes the claim.

"I've always followed Hernando School Board policy," said Bev Chapin, principal of Eastside Elementary. Chapin is now in her second year at Eastside and was previously principal at Deltona Elementary for three years.

The district's policy, according to the handbook, tracks the state statute that sets the traditional 10-point scale, with an F between 1 and 59 percent.

Chapin said her staff has followed that policy and has not given 40 percents in place of zeros for no work.

But the current policy does not preclude teachers from giving students "a second chance" by allowing them to make up missed work or retake a test, Chapin said.

"In order to give a child a grade you have to know what they've learned," Chapin said. "If a child is absent, it's only fair to give him an opportunity to learn … and do the lesson. A zero may not show what a child has learned, but might show work habits."

At that point, teachers must communicate with parents and other professionals to find out how to help the student, Chapin said.

Dominick Ferello is in his first year as principal at Westside. He replaced Charles Johnson, who retired at the end of last school year.

Ferello said he would be asking his staff about the grading procedures at the school.

"I want to do a little investigating and understand what they did last year. I want to make sure it's on target," Ferello said. "I'm going to follow the policy of the School Board. It's very easy to do."

Marcia Austin, one of the curriculum specialists who pitched the new grading policies to the board in June, declined to comment Thursday citing the possibility of an investigation.

But two months ago, school officials told the Times that the seed for the idea was planted a few years ago by Alexander's predecessor as superintendent, Wendy Tellone.

Tellone presented principals with the ideas of Douglas Reeves, author of The Learning Leader: How to Focus School Improvement for Better Results. Reeves argues that zeros are a punitive measure that ultimately hurts students. He emphasizes, though, that students should still do the work, and not just receive a free 40 percent.

As for creating a minimum failing grade for work that is turned in, Reeves says it's logical on a 100-point scale to continue the 10-point intervals to the F so that the range is 40 to 50 percent.

The idea is to keep students from falling into the statistical hole that just a few zeros or very low marks can create.

"It was easy to sell the K-5 teachers on the policy," Debbie Pfenning, the district's supervisor of elementary curriculum, told the Times in June.

Similar grading strategies are already used in the improvement plans created for exceptional education students. By last year's holiday season, the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association heard that district officials were considering applying the policy to mainstream elementary students, said Joe Vitalo, the union's president.

Vitalo said the union urged the district to make the policy explicit in its handbook to protect teachers.

"We felt we would be more comfortable if board policy reflected the way we heard they would be implementing it," Vitalo said. "If they were going to do it, we wanted board permission."

Any administrator encouraging teachers to use the policy because of a tacit approval by a former superintendent is mistaken, Bonfield said.

"That's counterfeit money," Bonfield said

• • •

The board appears to be split on Bonfield's urging of an investigation into whether schools have been using the no-zero policy.

Board member John Sweeney agreed with Bonfield at Tuesday's meeting. But Pat Fagan and James Yant, who backed Bonfield's call for Alexander's ouster, said Thursday that an investigation would not be a productive use of time and resources.

If it wasn't clear before how the board defines the grading policy, it is now, they said.

"I just want to go on and proceed with the future of the school system because all it would do is hurt the kids, hurt the teachers, hurt the administration, and it hurts us," Fagan said.

Nicholson disagrees.

"We need to know what in the world is going on," she said.

She added: "I find it interesting that the same board members who want to fire Dr. Alexander for a lack of accountability won't hold other administrators to the same standard."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County School Board chairwoman urges investigation on grades 08/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 8:12pm]
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