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Kids who defied Florida's third-grade testing rules hit roadblocks as they return to school

Hailey Everett, Maddison Hohman and Madelynn Kinkade wait in the office at Chocachatti Elementary, a Brooksville magnet school, on Aug. 29, 2016. The children arrived with their parents expecting to begin fourth grade. They had been held out of school during a legal challenge to Florida's third-grade testing rules. Despite a judge's ruling in their favor, the children and their parents were told by Hernando County officials that they had arrived too late and their seats in the school were gone.
Published Aug. 30, 2016

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County parents felt flush with victory Friday after a Leon County judge ruled that their children, and others across the state, had been wrongly held back in third grade.

But their enthusiasm crashed Monday after Hernando officials hindered their efforts to enroll the students in fourth grade at their school, despite the judge's order.

Maddison Hohman, Madelynn Kinkade and Hailey Everett left Chocachatti Elementary wondering what they would do next after their principal told them they no longer had a spot there.

The arts-themed magnet school had given away their seats while the girls' families fought in court for promotion to fourth grade without having to take a state reading test. All three had school work showing they read at or above grade level.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Judge's ruling is a blow to Florida's third-grade testing rules

NEW LOOK AT AN OLD DEBATE: Should Florida's struggling readers be forced to repeat third grade?

"You are going to have to go to your zoned school," principal Lara Silva told the children's mothers, after calling the district office for direction. "They are not registered at this school."

Melinda Hohman, Maddison's mom, was near tears after getting the news.

"She wakes up every morning asking if she can go to fourth grade yet," Hohman said of her daughter, who accompanied her in school uniform, backpack slung across her shoulders. "We were keeping them at home because they didn't give them a fourth-grade classroom."

Hohman and the other mothers said they didn't remove their daughters from Chocachatti, which is hard to get into and has a long waiting list. Rather, they educated the girls at home while challenging the Hernando district's refusal to consider promotion options other than a reading test score.

Hernando officials said they made the parents aware of a district policy that requires students to report for classes within five business days of the start of the school year or lose their seat. Exceptions are granted only for "a documented hardship," the policy says.

But parents said the school would have put their kids back in third grade, which they didn't see as a viable option. And they believed their pending legal challenge would prevent them from losing their seats in the school.

"They unenrolled us," said Pam Everett, whose daughter Hailey was also part of the case, which is being closely watched around Florida.

"These kids earned their spot here. Litigation was ongoing at the time," she said. "I don't think legally they should be allowed to make us move."

Seven Hernando families made up the majority of plaintiffs in a complaint alleging that Florida's laws and rules ignored children's abilities across the whole school year in favor of a single test, which a growing number of parents are opposing. The Hernando district insisted that third graders have a test score to be considered for promotion, something Judge Karen Gievers rejected as willful ignorance of the law.

Hernando also acted differently than several of its neighboring districts.

While Gievers criticized the district's practices, though, she did not say it had to place children in any school they wish.

"That issue of possible retaliation, arbitrary and capricious conduct is not presently before the court in this case," Gievers wrote.

Everett's daughter Hailey, whose school work indicated she read at a fifth-grade level, said she couldn't imagine repeating third grade. When dropping off her brother in the car line, she said, she would hide her face from friends.

"I don't want kids from last year to see me going into a third-grade room," nine-year-old Hailey said. "I would be embarrassed."

Zachary Hazard found himself in an only slightly less precarious position as he returned to Suncoast Elementary on Monday.

The Suncoast principal told Amanda Hazard that Zachary could sit in a fourth grade classroom and attend lunch, music and physical education with his peers. But the boy wouldn't be considered a fourth grader unless he completed a portfolio, "which consists of testing," Hazard said.

"I said no," she said, noting that the judge's order allowed for the use of portfolios or report cards based on classroom work from the past year.

Zachary's family never received notice that he had a reading deficiency.

The boy refused the state reading test in the spring, only signing his name and answering no questions. He did not sit for an alternate assessment afterward.

District spokeswoman Karen Jordan said the system made available the "portfolio option," as the court required. But it is defining the term narrowly to mean a series of multiple choice exams, as described in state rule.

"Per court order, students will remain in 3rd grade until they complete the portfolio," Jordan said via email.

The state rule also says the portfolio must "be an accurate picture of the student's ability and only include student work that has been independently produced in the classroom."

Hailey Everett's school work indicated she can read at a fifth grade level. The school didn't consider that material, her mom said.

Jordan noted that the district had appealed the judge's ruling on the families' request for an emergency injunction, which would stop its enforcement. Andrea Mogenson, the parents' lawyer, said she had filed a motion challenging the district's position.

Meanwhile, the parents and their children plan to keep up their battle to upend the education accountability model championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and copied by several other states.

"I feel like we're fighting for all," said Maddison Hohman, 9. "That's what we're doing."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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