Mass dismissals rattle Pasco school

Principal Shirley Ray talks to reporters outside Lacoochee Elementary School on Wednesday about the state-imposed overhaul of leadership and teachers.
Principal Shirley Ray talks to reporters outside Lacoochee Elementary School on Wednesday about the state-imposed overhaul of leadership and teachers.
Published Apr. 25, 2013

LACOOCHEE — Alaya Filamor learned just before classes ended Wednesday that all the teachers in her school would lose their jobs in June because of the school's poor FCAT performance.

The Lacoochee Elementary School fifth-grader was not pleased.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said Alaya, 11, as she walked home with her family. "My teacher barely started this year, and she's a good teacher. . . . We don't need them gone, because they make a difference in our lives."

Alaya's teacher, Kristen Bloxsom, joined the Lacoochee staff just eight months ago. Her students, and those of 10 others who began working at Lacoochee since the start of the school year, haven't officially finished taking the FCAT yet.

The school has had such high staff turnover in the past few years — one district official estimated the churn to be about 50 percent — that it has had a negative effect on the overall academic performance. Lacoochee expects to get its third straight D grade this year, not long after it enjoyed a string of A's and B's.

The state's cure for this high turnover? More turnover.

The state Department of Education has pushed the Pasco school district to take the unusual step of dismissing all 39 Lacoochee teachers, the assistant principal and principal. Their jobs are set to be advertised by the end of the week, with incentives of $2,500 to attract top replacements.

The district's original plan for the school was to increase teacher training, add more instructional coaches and bolster other resources for the school, which serves a high-poverty, heavily minority rural community.

It's hard enough to lure staff to the isolated school, as evidenced by its regular turnover. But state officials said the district's turnaround proposal "needed to be more intense," said principal Shirley Ray.

Restaffing appeared the least painful option, said Tammy Rabon, a district supervisor. Other choices included converting the school to charter status or closing it and reassigning the students elsewhere.

"We do not want (closing) to be the option we choose," Rabon said. "Lacoochee Elementary is the heart and soul of the community. We understand that."

Lacoochee staffers are welcome to reapply for jobs there. District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the goal is to rehire as many of the current faculty members as possible.

Many intend to try.

"It's heartbreaking, but I'm going to do whatever I can to be back here next year," said Brittnye Vazquez, 23, who came to Lacoochee in March 2012 for her first teaching job. "I've seen tons of growth in these students. I'm very proud of each and every one of them."

Second-grade teacher Rachel Aguilar, 27, has taught at Lacoochee since graduating from college six years ago. She said she wouldn't consider leaving.

"We've been through a lot at this school," said Aguilar, whose husband also teaches at Lacoochee. "But we're very resilient, very dedicated. I know we can make it through."

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A big question is whether the current staff, with so many new teachers, can meet the state's requirements for rehiring.

State rules say reading and math teachers can't be rehired unless they are highly qualified and can demonstrate their students made learning gains over three years. That could rule out many, like Vazquez, who don't have those data to provide.

She remained undeterred.

"I have a lot to prove as a first-year teacher," she said. "I'm part of a team. If my team is going through this, this is what I signed up for."

Ray also intends to reapply. But state officials told the district that "due to the number of years (the) current principal has been at the school, you will need to provide significant justification for not replacing her."

Ray took over Lacoochee in 2010. And although the students have shown improvements in some areas, such as writing and reading, their overall results have declined. That's partly because of rising state expectations.

It's also partly a mystery, Aguilar suggested.

"We've come very far from the place we were when I started," she said, citing improvements in planning and use of data.

Robert Mahaffey, spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust, said his group does not recommend restaffing small rural schools, for many of the reasons that Lacoochee exemplifies: It already has difficulty keeping staff, and has a student body that requires dedication both inside and outside the school.

As school volunteer Judy Geig-er noted, Lacoochee serves children who don't speak English, who come to school hungry, who aren't fully prepared for school. And that, Geiger said, is not the fault of the school or its staff.

Given that scenario, Mahaffey said, other options seem better.

"Why would they not allow the professional development and support to run its course with its existing staff?" he asked. "There needs to be a multiyear commitment to improving student outcomes."

Florida officials have made clear, though, that they do not accept years of low test scores. All students can learn, they say, if provided the proper academic environment. Sometimes that means the teachers must go.

Sharon Adams, whose son begins kindergarten at Lacoochee in the fall, said she's on board with the change, regardless of how much it might shock the system.

"If this is what it's going to take to get the school back up to the level it's supposed to be, unfortunately they have to do what they have to do," she said. "We all want the best for our children."