Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A school's grade depends on lots of factors

BY ELIZABETH BROWN-WORTHINGTON

Boca Ciega High

So your grades have slipped. What do you do? Improve your homework habits. Study harder. Listen better. Seek help. Change your attitude.

The remedies are not too different when a school's grade slips.

Michael Vigue, principal at Boca Ciega High, took the helm in October 2010, when Boca Ciega was a D-ranked school under the State of Florida's controversial grading system.

Boca Ciega's grade began to rise, and in 2013 the Gulfport school earned an A for the second time in two years. Under Vigue, the school's graduation rate also went from a 62 percent in 2011 to 85 percent in 2013.

So what happened to cause such a huge leap?

A lot of things are different, said Vigue, who on any given day can be seen helping students out of their cars, directing parking lot traffic and walking the halls to chat with students. One big change is that he worked, he said, to "try and instill attention to detail, and improve the communication between students and staff."

The school facility also went through some major renovations, which Vigue believes made the students feel better and gave them more confidence. "It's easier to learn when the air conditioning works and the classrooms are clean and up to date," said the principal who makes a point of knowing every student by name.

Vigue worked closely with his staff and assistant principals to tune-up the curriculum, too. They reviewed the courses that were offered and why they were offered, making sure they made sense.

Vigue and his staff improved remediation options, making it easier for students who needed to catch up in areas in which they were behind, and added in numerous college and career preparation paths. "If things don't make sense sequentially, it (the curriculum) won't make sense."

Vigue credits the help of many for the school's improvement, among them Scott Mason, the instructional staff developer, also referred to as the "multitiered system of supports specialist." Part of that job description includes for Mason checking up on individual students to get a personal reading of their progress. If grades are down, he said, he talks to them about what they can do to improve.

Mason began at Boca Ciega teaching earth science to mostly freshman. "I don't recall when I started here," he joked. "But I believe it was somewhere between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, among the last of the dinosaurs."

Florida's school grading system was not yet in place when Mason started teaching, but when it began in 1999, Boca Ciega was below the district and state high school average. Physically, the school was in bad shape as well. Most of the buildings had classrooms with doors to the outside, and there were always flooding issues when it rained.

In recent years, Mason said, he has also seen a big change in the culture of the student body. "Students seem to be more engaged in their school, with adults," he said. "They (the students) feel better about it and generally seem to take more responsibility in making it a good place." But Mason believes it was a partnership between the students and the staff that most improved the school.

"It all starts, and ends, where the rubber hits the road: in the classroom," he said. He's noticed that the teachers are working harder and longer to help students personalize their objectives. The staff works to make sure that the students can see how everything fits into the big picture, he said, and he has also observed that the students have responded accordingly.

School grades are based on a complicated series of measures. Test performance (FCAT and now end of course exams), counts for about half the grade. The other half includes such things as graduation rates, college readiness and participation in accelerated courses such as advanced placement, dual enrollment and industry certification classes.

Mason offers some tongue in cheek suggestions for other principals looking to imitate Boca Ciega's success: Step one: "Recruit our students." Step two: "Hire our teachers." Step three: Hire our administration, counselors and support staff." Steps four and five: "Rinse, and repeat."

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