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Pupils' improvements ensure federal grant

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories about elementary school in the '90s. The series focuses on Rodney B. Cox Elementary School in Dade City. Because of its high number of low-income pupils, the school receives federal grant money that pays for small classes, more computers and innovative programs.

The rhinestone-studded dress and flashy earrings worn by principal Linda Rodriguez last Tuesday morning were the first clue that good news had arrived.

"I usually don't wear rhinestones before 5 o'clock," Rodriguez said, flipping her left earring and laughing in her office.

She glanced at the clock and jumped up, motioning this writer and Pasco School Board member Jean Larkin to follow. Rodriguez was to appear in the school's televised morning announcements and she was running late. Fortunately, she moves faster in high heels than most people do in sneakers.

"Quick," she called over her shoulder, "we need to go to TV. Hop like bunnies. Run fast."

The television room was overly warm because of a broken air conditioner, but Rodriguez didn't seem to notice. She stood in front of the camera and said, "See these rhinestone earrings and this glitter dress?"

"Boys and girls, listen up because I have wonderful news," Rodriguez said. School district officials that morning had released to her the results of the Stanford Achievement Test taken in April. As the pupils well knew, their performance on the test would determine whether the school would continue getting federal grant money, $1-million annually, for another three years.

The children did well. Federal officials have yet to verify test scores from a sampling of the pupils, but right now nothing stands in the way of the grant renewal.

Test scores also improved at Lacoochee Elementary School, which, like Cox, is completing its third year as a "schoolwide" Chapter 1 facility, meaning that all pupils receive benefits of the grant money. Other schools in Pasco use Chapter 1 money for specific programs.

A remnant of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program, schools qualify for the schoolwide grants when more than 75 percent of the pupils come from low-income homes as measured by those served free and reduced meals.

At Cox, 96 percent of the children qualify for the meals program. Aside from that initial requirement, schools must develop extensive improvement plans and show gains in a number of areas, including increased parental involvement.

But test scores are the sole measure of whether a school continues to receive grant money at the end of the initial three-year span. A particular source of pride in Pasco this year, Lacoochee pupils showed improvement in all 15 areas of comparison and at Cox results were favorable in 11 of 15 areas. The comparisons were made using a sample of youngsters rather than every one at each school, but, as they took the tests, the children didn't know whose scores would be included and whose would not.

"For this selected sample of kids, it was a steady improvement over the three years," said Elizabeth Bright, the district's specialist in program evaluation services.

Last year in Florida, 38 percent of the schools that had received schoolwide Chapter 1 grants failed to hit the test-score standard and did not continue to receive money. When that happens, schools lose whatever has been funded previously by the grants, such as computers and software and extra teachers hired to keep class sizes low.

Had test scores not improved, computers would have been removed from the school and class sizes would have increased from the average of 13 under the grant to perhaps double that.

With new grant money, the technology center at Cox will be greatly expanded as part of the renewed funding, and new staff members will be added.

"We get to keep the computers. We get to keep the teachers. We get to keep the guidance counselor," Rodriguez told the school during the announcements.

"Hip, hip, hooray!" shouted Leigh Knutson, the guidance counselor.

The school also gets to "buy" a psychologist, Rodriguez said, and the process to hire that person has begun. Besides that new staff person, the school will hire someone to handle technology resources (computer software and the like) in the areas of math, science and health, a full-time employee to serve as a liaison to parents and someone to work with youngsters who don't know English. At Cox, that mostly will mean Hispanic children.

A building will be converted to house the new employees and services offered and space also will be altered to create a continuous progress "pod," consisting of one kindergarten class, one first-grade and two second-grades.

Teachers will implement that new curriculum, which allows multi-aged groups of children to work and learn together.

That the school will keep everything bought with previous grant money and add more with new grant money was cause for celebration last week.

After the announcements, youngsters and their teachers gathered on the front lawn to tie green and yellow balloons, representing the school colors, to trees, shrubs and fences. They also sang Shout and Rodriguez danced with the children.

Mary Nicholson's fourth-grade class _ too cool to carry on with the younger kids _ watched from the shade of a tree. The fourth-graders said that after three years in the grant program, they grasp more in school.

The youngsters learned how to approach exam week with a positive frame of mind. They also were given free time in the afternoons following morningtests .

"I did better than I did last year," Latesha Dennis, 11, said of this year's test. "I learned more this year."

She said that for the first time ever, the Stanford test answers came to her easily. Having a small class helped, as did working on the computers, said Latesha, who along with her classmates also sang the praises of Ms. Nicholson.

"I learned a whole lot more (this year)," said Bryan Wright, 11. "Because my teacher, she's a good teacher. If you listen, you learn more."

Ms. Nicholson taught him how to listen better, he said.

Tiffany Singleton, 11, said that her test scores in math were much better this year than last.

"I improved a lot," she said as 10-year-old Kelly Graham walked up.

The children said that knowing that their school's future depended on them gave them incentive during exam week.

"And so we tried our best," Kelly said. "That's all they wanted for us to do was to try."

This year at Cox Elementary, that was all it took.