DADE CITY — Facing the threat of a school "restructuring," Cox Elementary educators spent much of the past year seeking better ways to instruct their students.
They wrote detailed curriculum guides for all grade levels. They offered math camp on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings for low achievers. They created a science enrichment class for high achievers.
Test scores have begun trickling in, and so far, they look good. Maybe good enough to avoid the penalty phase of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. No one will know for sure until mid July, when the Florida Department of Education announces whether schools have made the "adequate yearly progress" target that has eluded Cox the past five years.
"I want to know now," principal Leila Mizer said during an interview reflecting on the school's efforts toward that goal. "But I will have to live through it."
Like many others at Cox, Mizer expressed overall satisfaction with the school's progress since last August. Almost everyone began the year anxious over what might come. "Restructuring" was the great unknown, and it could have meant anything from everyone losing their jobs to bringing in a private management firm.
But as the year wore on and people began to see that the plan aimed more to help than punish, folks seemed to settle back into the rhythm of the teaching year — just with an even greater sense of purpose than before.
"Everyone calmed down. We all kind of knew what to expect," said media specialist Lori Meredith, who has worked at Cox for 20 years. "I thought it was one of the best years I have ever had here."
Things weren't perfect, of course.
Though the school made progress, it still had the lowest percentage of third-graders passing the FCAT reading exam of any Pasco elementary school. Six teachers left the school as it readied itself for restructuring.
Some of the training the teachers expected, such as how to better use test data to inform the curriculum, didn't come.
But enough positive things happened to help offset the negatives.
Cox parents started a new PTA after a nine-year hiatus, as the staff pushed to get parents more involved at the school. And teachers saw themselves working more closely together for the good of the students.
Reading specialist Melinda Smith credited the detailed curriculum guides that teachers put together last summer as a major influence.
"I definitely think the curriculum mapping helped us to put together all of the pieces and have more of a focus," Smith said. "We had things from the past that we didn't dump. But we put them all together."
Caroline Graham-Stewart saw her efforts in the newly created math resource teacher position paying off, as well.
"People started to emphasize their math teaching," she said, noting that early FCAT scores showed strong gains in students' math achievement.
Graham-Stewart said she often visited math classes, and when the students had two teachers there, some of the reluctant pupils were more willing to call over the teacher and ask questions.
"This helped to change how they interact with teachers," she said. "We were more accessible."
Throughout the year, the school had district-level guidance on how to make improvements, and a restructuring advisory committee met regularly to discuss how Cox might proceed if it fails to make adequate yearly progress this year.
Mizer said she intends to implement the majority of the plan regardless of the outcome: "We can always improve."
She already has started interviewing for four new "school achievement coach" jobs, which really will be mentor teachers. She's having all the teachers trained in how to best use test results to guide their lessons. And she plans to continue with Saturday math camps, having seen the success they brought.
"We decided that having nine weeks of Saturday school, even though it's tough on the staff, it's beneficial for the students," Mizer said.
Other ideas she has involve increasing parent participation in learning by doing things like buying CD players and reading texts on CD so parents can check them out and talk about the stories their children are reading with the kids.
"Anybody who has suggestions, we are definitely willing to listen," Mizer said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.