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A lesson plan from Okaloosa

Sitting in his office, a renovated half-century-old classroom with a red brick chimney, Okaloosa school superintendent Don Gaetz makes a point of disclosing what he is not.

"Don't take anything I'm saying as suggesting that I'm an expert, because I'm not an educator," Gaetz said, while decrying the evils of social promotion and praising the virtues of brutally honest grading.

The 55-year-old, semiretired health care executive was never a classroom teacher. Never a principal or administrator. Now, in his third year as the elected superintendent of the midsized school district, Gaetz presides over what may be Florida's finest school system.

Thirty-three of Okaloosa's 35 schools earned A's under the state's school grading system for the just-completed school year. It had the highest percentage of A schools in the state.

Educators around the state wondered what is going on in this northwest Florida county best known for Eglin Air Force Base and the world-class beaches near Destin.

The short answer is that in the 2{ years since voters chose Gaetz to run the schools, the district has gone beyond the state's tough school accountability rules. And Okaloosa started a year earlier.

The district has tried to provide real answers to rhetorical questions: What if struggling students aren't promoted to the next grade? What if kids get the grades they deserve?

"It was predicted that the bayous would run red _ with my blood," Gaetz said. Then, with obvious satisfaction, he added, "Well, that's not what happened."

During the 2001-02 school year, Okaloosa's ban on social promotion struck like one of those hurricanes that occasionally wallop Florida's Panhandle. There was plenty of warning. But until it hit in May 2002, few anticipated the impact.

Okaloosa students who were not performing at grade level were told they would not move up to the next grade. That goes further than the state's own third-grade retention policy tied to reading scores. Okaloosa's policy covers all grades and all core subjects.

The result: the number of students who flunked nearly doubled from the previous year.

The phone lines jammed with angry parents.

"People thought it was a fine idea, until it affected their child," said Okaloosa School Board member Rodney Walker, a career educator. "It was a pretty big shock for more than a thousand parents. I mean, they went nuts."

The district also refused to award an A, B or C grade if a child was performing below grade level in reading or math.

"I still believe it was wrong," said Lisa Shock, whose son was slated to repeat fourth grade last year but ultimately was promoted. "We're talking about a 10-year-old boy. If they thought this was going to benefit a child, they're mistaken."

The policies put in place last year in Okaloosa left no comfortable middle ground for educators. Some fervently believe retention damages the self esteem of struggling children. Others think social promotion is well intentioned but fundamentally dishonest, harming struggling children.

Okaloosa leaves no doubt where it stands in that long-running debate.

"Some see it as heartless," said Janet Stein, principal at Elliott Point Elementary in Fort Walton Beach, which went from a D in 1999 to an A this year, "but you don't do a child any favors if you give them a B and promote them because they try hard."

Eliminating social promotion was a major cultural shift for the Okaloosa schools. Since Gaetz took over, dozens of principals and administrators have left or been transferred _ some due to retirement, some not.

"It's like for years everyone was joining hands in the conspiracy: "I won't tell if you won't tell,' " said Frank Fuller, an Okaloosa assistant superintendent, speaking of social promotion. "Everybody went along, but we weren't being honest about what the kids were doing. It wasn't getting results."

Terry Bevino, the district's Quality Assurance Officer in charge of instruction, thinks Okaloosa still wouldn't be getting results if it hadn't changed what happens after a child is held back.

"You can't put a child back in the same classroom with the same teacher and teach him the same way and expect different results," said Bevino, who has spent 30 years as an Okaloosa educator.

In Okalossa, children who are retained get a new teacher and different curriculum.

The district also devised education plans for each retained child. They call it a "Plan of Care." That's a medical term, in keeping with Gaetz's inclination to "use noneducator terms around here."

The plan includes an unusual but significant feature: $2,000 assigned to each struggling child, to be spent however the child's parent, teacher and principal see fit. The district spends $1.5-million on those supplements, with the money coming out of the budget for remediation and summer school. The $2,000 sum is almost half again what the state spends on a typical student.

Okaloosa gets $4,784 per student from the state _ a figure $190 below the state average.

The money could be spent on tutoring, books, a computer program or a newspaper subscription. Much of the money is spent on private tutoring such as the Sylvan Learning Centers. Gaetz refers to the money as a "remediation voucher."

"We tell parents "We've retained your child, and we know you're not happy with us. But here's what we're going to do about it,' " Gaetz said.

Principal Jaqueline Craig shakes her head at the suggestion that the schools perform better because Okaloosa, with its beautiful gulf-front beaches, is full of kids from well-to-do families.

That doesn't describe Craig's school.

Northwood Elementary is in Crestview in the northern part of Okaloosa. It is surrounded by low-income apartments and public housing. More than half of the Northwood students are eligible for the federal lunch program, an indicator of poverty. The school got a C in 2002 and an A in 2003.

"That's where we've made strides, with the rural schools at the north end of the county," said School Board member Rodney Walker.

Good grades are easier to come by at the more well-to-do schools, such as Destin Elementary.

"Face it, if they hired you and me as teachers at Destin Elementary, we could fish two days a week, and it'd still be an A school," Walker said. "But at our other schools, they have to work pretty hard. And they're A's too."

As satisfying as it is to lead the state in terms of the school grades, Gaetz is a little uneasy with that measuring stick.

"This isn't just about getting A's," Gaetz said. "We have other goals."

Okaloosa has identified a number of high-performing school districts around the country _ including the highly-regarded schools of Fairfax, Va. _ and makes comparisons with them.

"Being first in Florida is terrific," Gaetz said. "But it's not enough to be the best in a state that is among the worst. We intend on being one of the best school systems in the country.

By the numbers

+ Population of Okaloosa County: 170,000

+ Number of public school students: 30,000

+ Number of schools, including charter and alternative schools: 41

+ Size of annual operating budget: $180-million

+ Funding per pupil: $4,784 (state average: $4,976.)

_ Source: Okaloosa County School District and Florida Department of Education