Saturday, September 22, 2018
Education

Troubled Pasco schools see hope as test scores begin to arrive

When Dawn Scilex appeared before the Florida Board of Education last July, she told the panel she "absolutely" had the pieces in place to lead Hudson Elementary School to a state grade of C.

As the first test results of her tenure as principal rolled in, Scilex sounded upbeat about positive trends, but mindful of the work that remains.

Student proficiency rates are far from awesome, with well over half below grade level and more than a third of third-graders facing possible retention. But there are some glimmers of hope.

"When you start digging, there are some celebrations," she said, noting for instance that 76 percent of third-graders in the bottom quarter of the class made gains on their reading performance. "We're moving kids in that direction. The state has given us two years."

Knowing that time is of the essence, school leaders — particularly those facing state-mandated turnaround plans — pay close attention to the reams of test data that arrive each May and June. They spend much of their summer working to replicate what went right and replace what didn't work well.

"We have our eyes focused on kids and achievement," Scilex said. "Change doesn't happen overnight."

Hudson Elementary has struggled for years to improve student outcomes, receiving F's in 2015 and 2016. It replaced most of its staff and adopted new instructional models for the 2016-17 school year.

It is not alone.

Also under close scrutiny are Gulf Highlands Elementary, which had to submit a turnaround plan to the state last fall after consecutive D grades, and Lacoochee Elementary, which has moved on and off state watch lists as long as Hudson Elementary.

Their leaders, too, have offered cautious outlooks to the future, based on the third-grade reading data and other locally generated monitoring information.

"I am afraid to say this, but, for math especially, I am feeling really good," Lacoochee principal Latoya Jordan said. "You just never know what's going to come out on that assessment."

Jordan noted that, like the other schools with high percentages of low-income children, students move in and out often. As a result, the preliminary test details don't show who will ultimately count toward the accountability grade.

The staff works to properly evaluate each child's skills upon arrival and place him or her in the proper courses, she said. But the churn can have an effect on outcomes.

And kids aren't the only ones coming and going.

Gulf Highlands, Lacoochee and Hudson in the past have had trouble keeping teachers. The reasons have ranged from tough work demands to long commutes between home to school.

Scilex said she has three classroom teachers and an art teacher leaving this summer, down from the 26 changes of a year ago. Training new teachers to the school's way of business can be daunting and time consuming, particularly since professional development goes on all year.

"If we had all new staff, it would be very hard," she said.

Jordan said Lacoochee, which restaffed four years ago, continued to have trouble keeping teachers, too — even when offering bonuses for coming and staying. For the just-completed year, in which the bonuses were discontinued, two of four third-grade teachers were new, as were all three second-grade teachers and one kindergarten teacher.

"It's like almost every year you're starting over," Jordan said, which does not help to create consistency for needy students.

"It looks as if next year, for the most part, the turnover rate is going to be much lower," she added.

That should bode well for the future, Jordan said.

Judy Cosh, Gulf Highlands' principal since 2013, said it has taken time for her staff to identify the right practices and implement them properly, while also working to get students to believe they can succeed.

"It definitely takes a lot of understanding of the different components that are highly effective practices," Cosh said.

Her school this year saw a 10-point jump in third-graders at grade level or above in reading.

Of course, it's not just the struggling schools that keep tabs on test results. All understand that Florida places high stakes on the scores, and many parents base decisions about school choice and where to live on the details.

Pasco County officials highlighted the big shifts in third-grade reading after the state released that information. Among the details, Deer Park Elementary rose from 56 percent proficient to 80 percent, Lake Myrtle improved from 61 percent to 79 percent, and Northwest Elementary increased by 17 points.

Superintendent Kurt Browning, who has pushed for higher performance but also criticized the high-stakes use of test results, said he was encouraged by the growth but mindful that more must come.

"We're moving in the right direction, though," Browning said.

All state test results must be released by the week of June 8. School grades come later in the summer.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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