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TAMPA -- Lena Vera was not happy when she walked into Robles Elementary School just before the school year began.
Aaliyah, her youngest daughter, was entering third grade at Robles, one of four schools in Hillsborough County rated "F" because of poor student performance on the FCAT.
Everyone knows that F means failure, thought Vera, a single mother of three who has made education a top priority in her home. How could her daughter learn at a failing school?
But as she walked through Robles that day, teacher after teacher kept telling her things would be different. They talked about new books and computers, about how excited they were to be there.
Vera crossed her fingers and decided to let Aaliyah stay.
One more year.
"I'm waiting for the school grade to come back out," Vera said.
There are four schools in Hillsborough County that have received failing grades from the state: Robles, Oak Park, Lockhart and Shaw elementary schools.
But the four share another dubious distinction. Because of their F's, they are the first Hillsborough schools required to participate in what amounts to a government experiment.
If it fails, so do they.
The schools have hired reading coaches and math specialists in hopes of avoiding another F. Some make parents sign contracts in which they promise to help. One school offers students a free trip to Disney World as a reward for high test scores.
"We need to make our grade a little better," says Shakia Lane, an Oak Park fourth-grader feeling the pressure. "Even a B would be good."
That experiment began four years ago, when Gov. Jeb Bush introduced his accountability plan for education. He said the state would never improve its lowest-performing schools until it found a way to identify them.
Hence, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT -- a standardized exam that grades schools on their ability to teach reading, writing and math.
Schools with high grades get extra money. Schools that fail also get help, though not as much money as those that excel.
Some educators are critical of the school grading system. They question what is actually being measured, since most of the schools that receive low grades have the highest poverty rates.
"Are you measuring whether a school is a quality institution, or are you measuring the quality of its students?" asks John Hilderbrand, Hillsborough's director of student testing. "Those two things are very different."
Consider the obstacles Hillsborough's F schools are asked to overcome:
Their mostly minority students are among the poorest in the county. At Oak Park near Ybor City, 94 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, an indicator of poverty. That compares to 22 percent at Hunter's Green Elementary, an A-rated school in affluent New Tampa.
School officials say there is little parental involvement at the F schools, and rampant absenteeism. About 10 percent of the students miss at least a month of class a year.
Some of the schools are old. Many of their teachers are new.
If the F schools fail to raise their grades this year, each of their students will be offered a private school voucher next fall, paid for by taxpayers.
It's already happened elsewhere.
Several weeks ago, Robles principal Cheryl Dafeldecker appeared on Eagles TV, the school's morning show, to introduce every student who made the honor roll. Each would be treated to lunch at CK's, the revolving restaurant at Tampa International Airport.
The only student seated next to her that morning was 8-year-old Aaliyah Hinson, Lena Vera's daughter.
No one else made the list.
"Most schools have a lot more," says Dafeldecker, a second-year principal who doesn't sugarcoat the challenges facing her east Tampa school. "We have a lot of kids below grade level. We have a lot of work to do."
The state and school district are trying to help. They provide the F schools with experts, training and new materials.
Each has received a wireless computer lab, where students can practice taking the FCAT.
All four schools use reading and math coaches to work one-on-one with students. At Shaw, children with the biggest deficiencies can attend an intense, twice-weekly after-school program.
Character development also is a major focus.
Last week, Oak Park principal Joyce Miles delivered McDonald's Happy Meals to the eight students judged best-behaved in the school. But first, she asked a question to a classroom of fourth graders.
"Who wants to go with me to Disney World?"
Several hands shot in the air.
"What do you have to do in order to go to Disney World?"
The answer: Score at least a 5 on the FCAT in reading on a scale of 1 to 6.
"I'm so proud of you boys and girls," Miles said. "I know you can do it."
Several of the schools have decided to remake themselves.
Lockhart Elementary will be converted into a performing arts magnet school next year. About half of its current students will be assigned elsewhere.
Oak Park and Robles have begun their transformation into academy schools, similar to magnet schools. The schools will have strict attendance, behavior and parental involvement policies.
Students and parents must sign contracts in which they agree to abide by the new requirements. If they don't, their children will be transferred.
"We're getting desperate," said Bill Person, Hillsborough's director of pupil assignment. "What we're saying is (we) can't do it without the parents."
The schools also are receiving financial support. But the money going to F schools is much less than what is being awarded to more affluent schools that do well on the FCAT.
Last year, the state's highest performing schools received $121-million in state recognition money. Failing schools got $7.3-million in redirected federal funds.
About a month before school grades were announced last spring, all teachers at Oak Park and Robles were told they would have to reapply for their jobs. Many were angry and refused. Turnover was high.
Overhauling a school's faculty is a last-ditch attempt at improvement. The idea is to bring in fresh teachers, unaffected by the problems of the past, who will work as a team.
It also gives schools a chance to get rid of problem teachers by not rehiring them.
The result of the overhaul: a disproportionate number of new teachers -- many right out of college -- working at the two schools.
Some come with noble ambitions.
"People teach in high-poverty schools for the same reason some people go to the Congo," said Walt Bartlett, Hillsborough's director of federal programs.
One such teacher is Debbie McGuire, a 29-year-old former counselor to abused children. She chose Oak Park over better-performing Forest Hills and Shore elementary schools because she wanted to work with underprivileged children.
Some days, she questions her decision.
"They were further behind than what I thought," she said. "It's above and beyond what I expected."
At Oak Park, 12 of the 21 regular education teachers are new. At Robles, only six teachers stayed. Of the 20 new teachers hired, 16 are new graduates.
Dafeldecker, the Robles principal, doesn't see inexperience as a problem.
"They're enthusiastic. They come early. They stay late," she said.
The district is trying to train them. They attend regular workshops on lesson planning, classroom management, teaching strategies and FCAT preparation.
"I've done more training since June than in the last 10 years of teaching," said Robles teacher Pat Krehnke, a 33-year veteran teacher from Tennessee.
Hunter's Green Elementary, an affluent school in New Tampa, had 427 volunteers last year who spent more than 33,000 hours helping out.
Oak Park Elementary had 52 volunteers. They contributed 1,630 hours.
Those numbers explain why the F schools hired workers this year whose primary job is to get more parents in the door.
It isn't easy.
Two weeks ago, parent liaison Shawn Smith sent fliers home with every Oak Park student. The fliers reminded parents that their "involvement can make a difference in your child's life."
She was promoting "Parent Involvement Day," during which parents could munch on a buffet of salad and snacks, receive free books for their children and make games to help their children learn.
Only seven parents showed up.
Arenetta Saunders is the exception. She spends so much time at Robles Elementary that she was recruited to lead the PTA.
She is there many days when parents drive through to pick up their children after school. She begs them to come to PTA meetings.
It's a tough sell.
"Last PTA meeting, I ordered 30 pizzas," Saunders says. "We had to take the pizza home."
But parents who are involved are beginning to notice changes in their schools.
Vera, the Robles mother, says her daughter brings nicer books home. Her lessons seem more challenging than last year. She is no longer teased by bullies.
Vera is starting to think being labeled a failing school could have its benefits.
"It stirs some stuff up," she says. "They are aware the public eye is on them."
-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or email@example.com .