Principal Tricia McManus began calling students out of class in January. By the end of this week, she expects to have talked with every student in grades 3-5 at Just Elementary School, a two-story campus overlooking a public housing project in West Tampa. "Don't be nervous," McManus tells Kaleion Francis, starting one of these conversations with an encouraging smile. "We're going to have a data chat."
She searches for the fifth-grader's name on a wall of brightly colored Post-its. Each one sums up a student's academic performance in a two-inch square. McManus finds Kaleion's name on a purple sticky, near the bottom of the bulletin board.
"Let's look at reading. You went from a 1 to a 2. Do you think it's hard?" McManus asks. "I think you're capable of at least a 3. Do you? Can you read the words? Can you understand the words?"
She asks Kaleion how she handles frustration on the FCAT. The 11-year-old places her face in her hands.
McManus reassures Kaleion that she is improving, then helps her set goals for the next round of testing.
"Three, five, five. I'm going to hold you to those," she tells Kaleion, sending her back to class with a box of Hot Tamales candies. "I want you to do your very best when it comes time."
"Success for every student is the only option," reads the framed statement on the front counter at Just Elementary, next to the visitor's sign-in book.
It is as much a threat as a vision.
In the past decade, a bold experiment in holding schools accountable for student performance has turned Just's classrooms into testing laboratories, charged with nothing less than finding a cure for the most chronic problems in public education.
No more promoting third-graders who can't read. No more putting up with bad teachers. No more complaining about how hard it is to teach children who come to school unprepared, or tired, or hungry.
As in many experiments, this one has consequences. Students are no longer simply children. At Just, each one represents at least two points, per subject, on the school's annual grade. Their progress is tracked meticulously on a remorseless rainbow wall of Post-it's, stickers and silver stars.
Students know precisely where they stand in this world, and sometimes the truth hurts. They're even asked to sign contracts stating what they will earn on this month's FCAT exams in reading, math and science. Kaleion signed her contract with a blue pen, in tight, neat letters.
McManus oversees all this goal-setting and testing and assessing with the zeal of a missionary.
She passes out candies to kids, papers the hallways with thermometers that track classroom goals, encourages teachers to show unity by wearing red shirts on Fridays.
Her own everyday outfit includes a circular lapel pin bearing the number "212" — shorthand for this year's theme at Just. Its significance is explained on a poster hanging outside her office:
At 211 degrees, water is hot.
At 212 degrees, it boils.
And with boiling water, comes steam.
And with steam, you can power a train.
One extra degree makes all the difference.
• • •
Just received its first F grade four years ago. That was no surprise to McManus, 40, who had just been asked to take over the struggling school.
Still, she never hesitated to take the job.
"I knew this neighborhood,'' she says. "I knew this school could make it."
McManus also knew her efforts would be defined by the catchwords of a new world of accountability: No Child Left Behind. A-Plus school grades. "A-Plus-Plus," the sequel.
McManus believes it takes three to five years to change a school's culture. She had a plan.
Year one: She made tough calls on which teachers should stay. She started weekly teacher meetings by grade level and worked with her team to place detailed calendars on what to teach and when to teach it in every classroom.
Year two: Test scores rose, but not enough. Parents still showed up in the front office yelling and cursing, especially if another student picked on their child.
Year three: McManus ordered a no-excuses approach to discipline. She added etiquette clubs for boys and girls and award nights for honoring parents.
Still, Just continued to receive public floggings: D, F, D.
Along the way, while researching high-poverty schools that beat the odds, she read about an approach that helps educators see the students behind the statistics.
"I want to see every kid on a Post-it," McManus told the faculty.
So each child's name went onto a yellow sticky note, arranged by FCAT score. Someone asked to color code by teacher. Later, red stickers were added to identify students with disabilities.
The result was a "Data Wall,'' a collage in the teachers' conference room.
A blue dot identifies an English language learner. The lowest performing students are highlighted by turquoise boxes with the letters "BQ," or bottom quartile, for which the state expects specific progress.
"It really helped to focus on the individual students and make sure no child is falling through the cracks," McManus says.
Last spring, the school came just four points from earning a "C'' on its annual grade, which would have been its highest mark ever. If one more child had passed the FCAT in reading and math, Just would have made it.
Four points. One child.
Close doesn't count in hand grenades or FCATs.
"The bottom line is this: The public really does judge you on your grade," she says. "Even the kids take ownership of a D or a F."
• • •
McManus grew up in a family of educators. Mom and Dad met in the teaching program at the University of Tampa. They raised eight children around a dinner table where an extra seat was often reserved for a football player from Chamberlain High School, where her father, Billy Turner, has coached for 30 years.
Four of her siblings also became teachers. All stayed close to their childhood home in north Tampa, where 20 grandchildren come together every Sunday at lunch.
As a student at Chamberlain High, McManus spent more time flitting between social cliques than she did on homework. Grades of B and C peppered her report cards, but she was captain of the cheerleading squad and senior class senator.
"I had to be in charge of things," she says with a laugh. "Teachers have that kind of personality. They like to give directions and orders."
She burned out on extracurriculars in college, graduating with a 4.0 in teaching from the University of South Florida. She soon went back for a master's in educational leadership.
McManus walked into her first classroom 18 years ago in north Tampa. She had an Apple II computer, a floppy disk and no idea what to teach. Should she follow the book? Go by the teacher's manual?
"I had no idea how I was doing," McManus says. "It was kind of just, you teach a unit, and then you move on."
She thinks accountability has changed that — for the better.
"All this data and information is really for us. It's really for the adults,'' McManus says. "It's saying, 'Are we doing everything we can for kids?' "
Her convictions about what children can achieve are grounded in personal, not just professional, experience.
Nine years ago, McManus' second child, Megan, was born with Down's syndrome. She cried for three days before finding solace in books about raising children with Down's.
"It's always been my passion to just show others that you're wrong that this child can't do this, you're wrong,'' she says. "So with my own child I've been the same way. I don't like IQ to cause anyone to predict what a child can do.''
• • •
Before every practice test, Alicia de la Torre leads her students to the Data Wall in her classroom. She asks them, "What are we going to do today?"
The only correct answer: "Go up."
On this day, she calls her fifth-graders' attention to the Data Wall as soon as they file in from lunch. She has prepared yellow Post-its with the results from their latest practice test in reading.
"Peter," she says, standing on a chair to place a sticky note on high on the wall. "You went from a 61 percent on the last test, and that is a Level 3. This latest practice, you are a 96 percent. When you get up in these very high scores like that, you're talking fives and that is tremendous."
The room erupts in applause. A classmate fist-bumps Peter, a handsome 10-year-old wearing a white polo shirt and a smug grin. He usually earns the highest score in the class.
De la Torre does not linger on the two students whose scores have slipped, telling them to "try harder." But she does single out one student.
"Malik," de la Torre says, pausing for effect. "This is not only a huge gain, but the highest gain in the entire room."
She explains to the class that Malik tried hard on the first test, but didn't know things he should have known at the beginning of fifth grade. His first test score was 15 percent.
"Malik now has a 73 percent. How amazing is that? He jumped, look at this, 58 points. He jumped right up to a Level 3. And that is a pretty solid three, Malik. Excellent job."
A smile crosses Malik's chapped lips. At 12, he is old enough to know what it means to get pulled out of class for extra help in reading. De la Torre points out that classmates on the other side of the room are high-fiving for him.
The staff at Just has talked a lot about whether to talk about kids' scores so openly. Other teachers give their students numbers to preserve their privacy, and at the beginning of the year, De la Torre offered to do the same. But the children said they wanted to use real names.
The pressure is not always easy. In one classroom, a third-grade boy started crying when he fell one answer short of Level 3.
• • •
"High expectations are just critical, critical," McManus says while passing out research articles at the start of a weekly meeting with her leadership team.
The teachers look at the Data Walls, which have just been updated. McManus asks how many days remain before the FCAT testing period officially begins on March 10. What else do they need to be doing?
The reading teacher is calling the parents of the third-graders who were retained last year. Eight were held back by state requirement, and she says parents are grateful for a progress report. Three are still at Level 1.
The writing teacher is having students present examples of their work on the school's televised morning show. Still, she worries about overkill.
The science teacher just served ice cream to 40 students who moved up one FCAT level. Her team is creating a workbook called "Make It Stick Like Glue" to send home with students.
The math teacher is photographing students who have made FCAT gains. He plans to showcase them on a "Wall of Fame" in the cafeteria.
He is concerned, however, about a divide coming into focus on the wall.
At Grade 5, students seem split between the lowest and highest levels. So they either know the content well or they hardly know it at all.
But he points out a bright spot: On the last practice test, two students leapfrogged from Level 1 to Level 3 or higher. Both have turquoise "BQ's" on their Post-its.
One is Kaleion Francis. If she keeps this up, she will earn three points for the school in math — one point beyond the usual two.
That extra point is significant, the math teacher notes.
Just Elementary is still only four points from a C.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Coming next Sunday
Some elementary schools in the Tampa Bay area have completed the long journey from D's and F's to A's. How did they do it?