Off state's watch list, West Zephyrhills Elementary aims to stay off

Published October 3 2018

ZEHPYRHILLS — Stephanie Bacot raised her voice above the din of West Zephyrhills Elementary first-graders arriving for the start of classes on a recent Wednesday.

"It's time for WIN!" Bacot announced, as she projected a writing prompt question on a screen in the front. "Do you know where to be?"

Some children grabbed their journals and started scribbling thoughts about what animals do with their tails, while a few advanced students got together to sample more difficult reading materials. A couple of English language learners focused on tablets with language review programs.

A group of three youngsters headed to Bacot's desk for intensive work on letter and sound identification, something they desperately needed if they hoped to close the learning gaps with children who are at grade level and higher.

WIN stands for "What I Need" at West Zephyrhills. And it's what the school's educators strive to provide in different ways as they try to keep moving ahead in the state's accountability system.

A year ago, West Zephyrhills faced the possibility of closure or takeover if it didn't improve on its student test performance. Long a highly rated school, it began slipping on the state grading chart in 2013, becoming Pasco County's lone D-rated school in 2016-17.

Principal Scott Atkins transferred in from A-rated Sand Pine Elementary for the following year. He made big changes in planning and instruction, not to mention climate and culture, that helped lift the school barely into C range — and out of state oversight — for the current academic year.

"But we're still fragile," Atkins said. "If we don't continue to work on the right type of work this year, we could drop back into that DA (differentiated accountability) status."

Rather than cut off the services that came with being on the state watch list, the district allowed Atkins to keep many of them in place so the school can continue its forward momentum. He has two floating substitute teachers available on campus most days, for instance, and a second assistant principal beyond the usual one to help with leadership.

Extra reading, math and science specialists visit the school twice monthly to help teachers develop lessons. New teachers get regular assistance with classroom management.

A specialist works with teaching teams as they devise approaches to deal with the various levels of attention that children require, from the highest to the lowest achievers. And they're paying extra attention to the lowest 35 percent, not just the bottom quarter the state requires, to catch more kids from falling further behind.

"We work with the schools to help overhaul systems, with tiered supports," said Iravonia Abiola, the specialist assigned to West Zephyrhills. "We want to ensure all kids are getting the highest level of supports."

While data drives many discussions and decisions, the effort includes much more.

It involves volunteers, including St. Leo University education students who help tutor English language learners after classes end. It meant replacing several teachers who weren't finding success with the children, who come largely from low-income families. It even included bringing in new classroom furniture and freshly painting the walls, after Atkins nearly lost staff members because of the campus' poor conditions.

"We are expecting good things," Atkins said. "There's a lot going on here, and it's pretty layered."

Bacot, who has stuck through the good and bad over 16 years at West Zephyrhills, sounded enthusiastic about the latest approach.

"I think we're headed in the right direction," she said. "This side of the county needs good, strong, compassionate teachers."

She sat at a small table with Addison Thompson, Imani Henley and Bryson Zachman for WIN time, which every available adult participates in each morning. Her group began with Letter Sound Bingo.

Bacot would pull out a popsicle stick and point to the letter written in black marker on it.

"What's this one?" she asked, turning to Addison. "You have it in your name."

"D!" the group responded. "D like d-d-dog. D like d-d-deer."

She pulled out another.

"Y!" the kids said. "Wuh-wuh-wuh."

Bacot told them to think of the color yellow, and they changed over to "ye-ye-ye."

She watched throughout to see if they continued to track the letter by marking it on their bingo sheets. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't, giving a glimpse into whether they were making progress.

"Pay attention to your cards," Bacot reminded them as they went through more sticks.

After the game, they turned to books in which all the words started with the same letter. Pictures offered added hints, and not just for the children.

Bacot held up a page that showed a dog playing the drums. The word on the page was "dog." The response she got was a hesitant "drum?" She knew that more work remained.

But she made sure not to let that dominate the lesson. It would become part of her planning with other teachers for additional instructional strategies.

"You all did such an amazing job today," Bacot told the group, who offered huge smiles before heading off to math.

Atkins said many of the things his team is putting in place should not be new. But at West Zephyrhills, several systems weren't in place.

His goal remains to get a solid team and approach in front of the children, keeping everyone moving in the right direction.

Abiola, who has advised the school over several years, said she is enthusiastic about what she sees.

"The instructional leadership he has provided for this school is amazing," she said. "I can see the turnaround."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

The Times will continue to follow West Zephyrhills Elementary throughout the school year, with regular updates on its efforts to remain off the state accountability watch list. The final results will come next summer, when the state reveals spring testing results that will show whether the school improved upon its low C, or not.

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