Wednesday, January 24, 2018

There's something to learn from higher student performance in Citrus County

Troll through demographic statistics — which, oddly, I enjoy — and you'll have a hard time finding two communities more alike than Citrus and Hernando counties.

Both are medium-sized, not particularly diverse counties with a sizable percentage of retirees.

Household incomes are higher in Hernando, but only by a couple of thousand dollars on average, and the percentage of school students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals in both counties is nearly identical — right around 55 percent.

Why bring this up? Because last week, when the state ranked school districts based on results on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, there was widespread wailing that the comparison didn't take into account factors such as the population makeup and wealth of the districts:

It was no surprise that rich St. Johns County was at the top, critics said, or that impoverished Madison County was at the bottom.

Okay, but how do you account for Citrus and Hernando, which are similar in so many ways, other than their place on this list: 14th for Citrus and 38th for Hernando?

Here's how: Educators in Citrus generally do a better job, and its residents are a little more committed to education.

No, it's not quite that simple. FCAT results don't come close to telling the entire story, and we should point out that when the Tampa Bay Times performed a separate ranking last week on students' math and reading gains in the past decade, Hernando placed in the top third of Florida's 67 counties.

But it's also clear that Citrus, which consistently has outperformed Hernando on a number of measures over the years, is doing something right. So I figured it wouldn't hurt to call a few people involved with Citrus schools, and here, they told me, are a few reasons for their success:

• Assessment and collaboration.

One of the tools they use — and Citrus has long been big on technologically advanced teaching aids — is PowerPoint reviews. Students are equipped with clickers that allow them to answer questions as the material is presented. This allows teachers to identify the children who are and aren't catching on — instantly and often. Teachers in some subjects, such as math, might conduct these reviews several times a week.

They must hate it, I thought.

Not at all, said a teacher friend of mine from Citrus. Not only do teachers appreciate the extra insight into their students, they meet regularly to compare notes and share ideas about how to better utilize their lessons.

• Smarter scheduling.

One of Citrus' privileges as a state-designated high-performing district — those that consistently earn "A" grades — is the right to set its own school year.

It starts two weeks earlier than most other districts, but at the same time as the nearest community college. This encourages dual enrollment for high school students. In all grades, the schedule gives teachers more time to prepare for FCATs.

• Steady leadership.

Superintendent Sam Himmel has held her job for eight years and served on the School Board for eight years before that. Most of the board members have served at least a decade, said Pat Deutschman, a 14-year veteran. That has greatly helped, for example, the district's program for assessing each school's strengths and weaknesses, which started long before the assessments were required by the state. With so many of the same people involved, Deutschman said, the district has been able to refine this system every year.

• Spend money.

Citrus doesn't exactly lavish money on education. But, on average, its teachers are paid about $2,000 more per year than those in Hernando. And annual per-pupil spending from all sources is about $400 higher.

And there's this indication that voters in Citrus are aware they need to pay enough to keep teachers motivated and children well equipped: Last year, they approved a small property tax increase to raise money for everything from new schools to new computers.

I can't imagine Hernando residents voting for that kind of increase, and I can point to a few recent periods when the district's leadership was anything but steady. Otherwise, I don't know every detail about what Hernando has done to improve its schools.

I do know I disagree with superintendent Bryan Blavatt, who dismissed last week's rankings as incomplete and providing too little information about individual schools. They don't tell us everything, certainly, but they do tell us something.

I was more encouraged by Eric Williams, Hernando's director of school improvement, whose impulse when reading the rankings was the same as mine:

Identify districts that outperforming Hernando and find out what we can learn from them.

"This raises the competitive hairs on the back of my neck," Williams said. "We're on it."

That's where we have to start.


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