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  1. Hernando

Hernando County schools have a long way to meet achievement gap goals. Here are three takeaways from their recent work.

Hernando County School District office  DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Hernando County School District office DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Mar. 5, 2019

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board got an update last week on efforts to close the school district's so-called achievement gap.

A 28-person committee has looked for ways to improve school for groups of students who pass state evaluations at significantly lower rates than their peers — including students of color, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and students in the process of learning the English language.

The committee formed earlier this year after district officials decided to take a more focused look at fixing the gaps, said Gina Michalicka, the district's executive director of academic services. The committee plans to present at a district-wide principals meeting in April, she said, and the groups will work together to help specific groups of students in individual schools.

The committee's presentation was generally positive, emphasizing the success of programs and practices at individual schools. But the data makes clear that the district has a long way to go before it reduces its gap on 2014-15 test scores by two-thirds — a goal it wants to meet in the 2019-20 school year.

Here are three takeaways from last week's update:

Most gaps have fluctuated, but shown little overall change, over the past four years. The school district measures gaps based on the difference between percentages of students in each group who receive a passing score on a Florida Standards Assessments exam. In 2014-15, for example, the percentage of white students who passed the English-Language Arts exam was 24 points higher than the percentage of African-American students who passed; the district would like to reduce that gap to 8 points by 2019-2020.

Some gaps have tightened, especially those involving students with economic disadvantages — gaps in three out of four of their testing categories closed by at least 4 points between 2014-15 and 2017-18. But in 16 of the 20 total categories, the gap closed by 3 points or fewer, stayed the same or widened over that time frame.

The gaps present a significant challenge, Michalicka said, and the district may not hit all of its targets by 2020. But she's encouraged by growth in some areas, and she thinks that the increased focus on data will result in major change over the next year.

"That's why we felt we really needed to take a strong look at this," she said. "Every school has so many pieces of data they look at on a daily basis, and I think it was important to bring this to the forefront."

Schools should encourage more students in struggling groups to take honors and advanced courses. Dana Pearce, an assistant principal at Springstead High school, said students may have the skills to take these classes, but they struggle with grades because they don't feel that adults have confidence in them.

"Sometimes when you talk to students and you ask them, 'Have you thought about taking AP Spanish?' they will say to you, 'Well, nobody's ever asked me before,'" she said. "Those students sometimes ... are right on the fence, where maybe the scores don't reflect that they're capable, but when they have someone who's standing behind them and pushing them and rallying for them, they'll step up to the plate."

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Schools should work to understand where students in these groups are coming from, committee members said. Ed LaRose, principal at Parrott Middle School, said his staff has worked to spend more time in the communities where students live, partially in an effort to better understand economically disadvantaged students — a group that comprises nearly 54 percent of the district's students.

"Our staff don't live where our kids live," he said.

And the school district needs to recruit a more diverse staff, said Janet Cerro, principal at Winding Waters K-8. Students of color make up about 37 percent of the district total.

"All students should feel like they belong," Cerro said.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.