Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Education

Tampa Bay turnaround schools need more work after poor FCAT results

One.

That's how many fifth-graders at Melrose Elementary passed the math FCAT this year.

Despite state-mandated changes in leadership and staffing, test scores at some of the "turnaround" schools in the Tampa Bay region were devastatingly low this year. Some schools could count their success stories on one hand.

Three F-rated elementary schools in St. Petersburg, including Melrose, had some of the lowest scores in Florida.

At Potter Elementary in Tampa, reading scores for third and fifth grades plummeted.

Lacoochee Elementary in Pasco County had the most promising performance, with gains in third and fourth grade. But something went awry in fifth grade, where reading and math scores sank by 12 percentage points.

Florida's turnaround program is an experiment intended to break a cycle of low performance by forcing dramatic remedies on the state's most struggling schools. But recently released test results — a confounding mix of wins and losses — leave no clear picture of what does and doesn't work.

As the search for answers continues, students and parents must grapple with upheaval in their schools.

The outcome "has vast economic implications for this community," said Rick Davis, head of Concerned Citizens for Quality Education for Black Students, who called the scores disheartening.

"That means that those students probably aren't going to graduate high school and join the workforce."

A few years ago, Florida started pushing chronically struggling schools to act sooner to make improvements or face serious consequences. The 2013-14 school year was the first year under the new system in which schools started their turnaround plans. Most chose the least drastic option of replacing principals and teachers. But if that step doesn't work, state law calls for more serious measures — including converting to a charter school or closing the school.

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said it was too early to predict whether turnaround schools were successful. School grades, which include learning gains and will be released later this summer, will provide a better view of the schools' performance, she said.

In addition to adding fresh blood, area turnaround schools tried a variety of strategies — addressing behavior problems, lowering class sizes, coaching children in smaller groups, lengthening the school day, trying harder to get parents involved.

What worked for some schools didn't work for others.

Lacoochee Elementary, which got a new principal and replaced half its classroom teachers, held steady or made gains in nearly every subject and grade tested. Others, like Melrose, took similar actions — replacing its principal and most of its teachers — but had disappointing scores.

At Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, 5 percent of third graders passed the math FCAT. That works out to about six of 109 students.

Compare that to the 49 percent pass rate for third-graders across the district.

Hillsborough County's F-rated Potter Elementary, which also got a new principal, saw drops in all subjects in third and fifth grade. Fourth-grade reading also dropped, while fourth-grade math and writing rose.

A few turnaround schools bucked the state's mandate, keeping their principals and most of their teachers. But performance at those schools was mixed as well. Maximo Elementary and Azalea Middle, both in St. Petersburg, are two examples.

Azalea held steady in seventh-grade math and jumped in eighth-grade writing. But most other grades showed declines.

Maximo scores were low, but showed gains in almost every area.

With the release of this year's scores, Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego said improvement would take time. He praised schools for celebrating students for whatever successes they had. Melrose, for instance, sent students on a limo ride and gave them tickets to see the Tampa Bay Rays after they had a double-digit gain in fourth-grade writing scores.

"I never want to have a test define our efforts or our work," he told the School Board last week.

Nanette Grasso, Melrose's new principal, said in an email that the number of students who earned all A's rose to 23 from eight at the beginning of the school year. Discipline referrals dropped 50 percent, and more than 200 people came to kindergarten "graduation" this year. Students, she said, started taking homework assignments more seriously, too.

"It will take more time to achieve the results we are striving for," Grasso said. "But we are in a much better place than we were a year ago."

Davis, the Concerned Citizens leader, says the remedies tried so far aren't broad enough to solve the problem. It will take more than changing the principal every few years.

"We simply are not doing enough," he said.

Turnaround schools were given two years to improve, but will effectively get three because of the state's transition to the new Florida Standards, which represent a slight revision of the Common Core State Standards. Schools taught to the new, more rigorous standards this year, but were tested under the old ones. To ease the transition, no school in the state will see repercussions from test scores in the 2014-15 school year.

Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning said he was reluctant to do a major overhaul of Hudson Elementary, the county's other turnaround school, with so many state-mandated changes in play.

"I'm not there yet," he said.

District officials didn't learn until too late last year that Hudson had earned a third consecutive D, and Browning didn't want to change teachers just weeks before classes were to begin. Hudson, which did get a new principal, didn't see as much improvement as Lacoochee.

At another turnaround, Pinellas Park Middle, some of the biggest wins weren't displayed in test scores.

Dave Rosenberger, a veteran principal in his first year at the school, said one of his biggest goals was to get students in class and keep them there, mostly by addressing tardiness and behavior issues. Eighth-graders were harder to convince, but overall the atmosphere was more civil.

"That took a lot of time, for kids to realize that it wasn't the same campus," he said.

The school, which changed about 30 percent of its teachers, held steady or rose in most grades and subjects tested. Some teachers were disappointed that scores didn't rise dramatically, but he said that such expectations were a bit unrealistic in the first year of a turnaround.

He predicted, "I really think that people are going to see a change in the test scores at the end of next year."

Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this story. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] Follow @fitz_ly on Twitter.

 
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