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Journal of an F year

Two-part series: How one school battled the worst label in Florida.

MELANIE AVE
Published August 24, 2003

June 11, 2002

TAMPA - The phone call comes on a steamy evening. Velia Pedrero is helping at her parents' house, as she has every other night since Mother's stroke.

Mother can't stand, dress or use the restroom without help, and Father has trouble with his memory. So Mrs. Pedrero and her sister take turns coming over.

It's almost bedtime when Mrs. Pedrero's cell phone goes off. It's one of her bosses, the deputy superintendent of schools.

Mrs. Pedrero just completed her first year as principal at Shaw Elementary, which the state graded a D three years in a row. She was sent there to turn things around.

A call? Something must be up at Shaw. A break-in? A fire?

The deputy superintendent apologizes for calling so late, but she figures Mrs. Pedrero would want a heads-up. The state will announce school grades in the morning. Sorry, but ...

Oh, no. Don't tell me.

... Shaw has the worst test scores in the county. The state gave your school an F.

Vice president of her class at Jefferson High, National Honor Society, graduated college in three years. Now, at 54, Mrs. Pedrero gets her first F.

The news wounds her, but she dares not give her parents more to worry about, not with Mother's stroke.

I'm fine, she tells them, not to worry. I'll find out more in the morning.

June 12, 2002

The principals of Hillsborough's four F schools - the county's first - are summoned to their equivalent of the principal's office: a meeting with superintendent Earl Lennard. At a career low point they get to face the cameras.

Lennard tells the assembled reporters: The state changed its grading formula again. Under last year's formula, Lockhart, Oak Park, Robles and Shaw elementaries all would have made passing grades. Lockhart missed passing by only two points.

"All parents want their children to attend an A school," the superintendent says. "The reality is, most don't."

The F schools have one year to raise their grade. Another F in the next four years and all their students will qualify for state dollars they can take to private schools.

Lennard pledges that Hillsborough's four F schools will succeed, led by the principals with him today. "We have confidence, absolute confidence, in their leadership."

Seated to his left, in black suitdress and trademark red lipstick, Mrs. Pedrero projects regal calm as always, day by day, 7 in the morning to 7 at night.

Still, she knows what she's up against: 20 new teachers, parents who come no closer to the school than the dropoff circle out front, and students, most from poor families, who often come to school sleep-deprived, hungry and angry.

Their collective FCAT performance was dismal: seven out of 10 not on level in reading and math; nearly half not on level in writing.

Mrs. Pedrero can push herself to the max, but she knows, in the end, it is out of her hands. Success or failure will come down to a handful of mornings eight months hence, when Shaw students, her students, swallow peppermints and take up their No. 2s.

***

It's summer vacation and Szedriel Olivia Mulero is home watching TV. She started Shaw in kindergarten and will be a big fifth-grader this year.

Kids picked on her last year, which her father attributes to Szedriel's innocence, still plays with Barbies; her name-brand shorts and skirts, FUBU; and her hair, styled at the salon every month, $50 a pop.

The noon news comes on. "Florida schools got their report card today," the announcer says.

Look, pictures of her school! Then comes the list of F schools. As someone who feels intense pressure to make good grades, Szedriel is so embarrassed.

***

From the news conference, Mrs. Pedrero drives straight to Shaw and rounds up about half the teachers. Some serious bucking up is in order.

She plies them with Publix sandwiches and reassures them: The F is just a bump; the reforms we started last year are working; we're on the right track.

Special-education teacher Bonnie Bresnyan is livid. On the TV news, a reporter asked the principal at Wilson Middle School, in upscale Hyde Park, What's your secret to an A? Her answer: Hard work.

Excuse me, Ms. Bresnyan growls, like we don't work hard? Give me a break. Schools in wealthy areas score better, everyone knows that. Most F schools are poor like Shaw.

For nine years, Mrs. Pedrero ran another poor school, Twin Lakes Elementary. After it jumped from a D to an A in 2000, the district asked her to work her magic at Shaw. She accepted the transfer, even as her husband questioned the odds and colleagues questioned her sanity.

The Shaw mascot is the bulldog, but last summer, kicking off her first full year, Mrs. Pedrero told her teachers the story of the bumblebee. Its shape and weight are too great for its wings. Science says it should not fly. But fly it does.

Mrs. Pedrero brought change, starting with multiage classrooms, which blend first- and second-graders, and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Of 119 Hillsborough elementaries, Shaw is the only one with multiage classes exclusively.

The teachers worked their tails off, tutoring after school and on Saturdays. They felt progress, they felt good. Until grades came out and Shaw slid from a D to an F. So much for flying.

July 11, 2002

The state summons F-school administrators from across Florida to the Tampa Convention Center for the "Assistance Plus Summit," a polite way not to say "F Summit."

The state promises every F school a reading specialist and pairs each with a school with similar demographics that earned at least a C.

The local district provides more tangible help. Deputy superintendent Jim Hamilton asks what the schools need to turn F's into A's. We're shooting for the moon here, he says. Don't worry about cost.

They shoot. They want:

More computers; information-rich books and magazines, with stories about current events, history and science, with passages similar to what the kids will see on the FCAT; extra staff, to involve parents and to run an in-school suspension room, so teachers have someplace to send disruptive kids.

The district's offer of help is like sitting on Santa's lap. The jolly man says yes to their every request.

Aug. 7, 2002

Mrs. Pedrero misses the first day of school. She's at the hospital, visiting her 74-year-old mother and namesake, Velia Cantero.

When Shaw got its F, Mrs. Pedrero worried Mother would think she was failing at her job. She took her a videotape of the news conference and made sure she heard the superintendent say of the F principals: "We have confidence, absolute confidence, in their leadership."

About a week ago, Mrs. Cantero was rushed to the hospital with difficulty breathing. Her doctor recommended heart surgery, but Mrs. Cantero was afraid she would never wake up. That night she fell into a coma.

The family finally elects to take her off the breathing machine. In seven minutes, she is gone. Mrs. Pedrero allows herself three days to grieve.

Lassie C. Shaw Elementary needs her.

The school, on 15th Street just south of Fowler Avenue, opened in 1972, in what was then Tampa's happening area. Fowler had the newest restaurants and a giant mall coming, University Square.

When gated communities opened farther north, the new thing was dumped for the next new thing. The abandoned homes near Fowler were converted to cheap rentals.

In the 1990s, the Hillsborough neighborhood with the greatest decrease of white residents was the area around Shaw. Now 89 percent of the school's students are minorities, mostly black.

The school looks like a drab collection of boxes connected by a maze of covered sidewalks, wrapped in a chain-link fence. The playground features a concrete slab of a basketball court and a field of weeds, dirt and sand.

Behind a classroom out back is the only splash of color, a tiny garden the first- and second-graders planted. Zinnias, tomatoes and marigolds spring from the dirt; a scarecrow in a Superman T-shirt watches the proceedings.

Nov. 20, 2002

For the Great American Teach-In, volunteers and parents flood classrooms with their expertise. At suburban Westchase Elementary, 135 sign up. Shaw has 25.

In Karen Gettel's class of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, the undisputed star is David Adkins. A deputy U.S. marshal, Mr. Adkins takes prisoners on airplanes.

The students are used to having armed officers around. They're forever seeing Mary Oliver, the Serpico of Shaw, marching kids to the office. Shaw is one of six Hillsborough elementaries with a security officer full time.

Mr. Adkins is a step up. He has props, starting with a bulky vest with POLICE stenciled in white. It will stop most bullets. Who wants to try it on?

Finally up steps a brave soul. Now everybody wants a turn.

"Have you shot anybody?"

"No. I've never had to even draw my gun on anybody. I've been very fortunate."

Out come the handcuffs and leg irons.

"This is how we restrain all prisoners. He cannot run. He cannot hurt me. He cannot hurt you. My job is not to hurt prisoners. It's to keep them safe and secure."

He wraps student volunteers in chains and cuffs.

"Would you put a kid in those if he runs from you?"

"As a rule," Mr. Adkins answers, "we don't chase kids."

Dec. 12, 2002

The music teachers predict that about one-third of the performers won't show for tonight's holiday program. It's tough getting parents inside the school under ideal conditions, and with the rain ...

Debra Morris, a school bus driver with children at Shaw, snags a spot in the second row. Her second-grader, Stephen, has been here since kindergarten, except for a brief transfer to Dunbar Elementary Magnet School last year. When Shaw got its F, Dunbar got an A.

Stephen tired of the long bus ride there and a classroom without chairs. He hated school. Ms. Morris returned him to Shaw, and mom and son are happier.

"It's a good school," she says. "The F is a little harsh."

Stephen rushes over. A classmate with a verse from Jolly Old Saint Nicholas didn't show. The teachers picked him to stand in.

"I'm having a cardiac arrest," he tells Mom, bending over like he's about to hyperventilate.

On with the show.

"This is going to be a lot of fun," the teacher-conductor says. "We have a lot of singers who've never sung these parts before."

Cue the tape.

They sing the first verse together; then the teacher takes a microphone down the line, each child singing a solo. The mike reaches Stephen:

Johnny wants a pair of skates.

Suzy wants a sled.

Nellie wants a story book,

One she hasn't read.

Flawless. The audience goes wild.

The standing-room-only turnout thrills the music teachers. Seems parents with even the most complicated lives find a way to see their children stand in front of the whole school to sing the Twelve Days of Christmas.

"There's no sound more beautiful than the sound of children singing," says one teacher. "They were missing some voices, but they sang their hearts out."

The teachers chart each student's progress on a spreadsheet and report the numbers to the state every nine weeks. The year half over, 55 percent pass writing, 62 percent are on level in reading and 70 percent are on level in math.

Mrs. Pedrero thinks a C sure would be nice.

Jan. 24, 2003

Ms. Gettel herds her 20 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in a wobbly line along the sidewalk. They're headed to a class of first- and second-graders, each carrying a book to read to the younger kids. They call it Buddy Reading.

A girl with pigtails carries Poppleton, about a city pig who moves to a small town and visits the library every Monday to read. The girl falls in with Ms. Gettel and points to the three-syllable title.

"What's that word, Ms. Gettel?"

"You tell me."

She makes pleading eyes.

"Okay," Ms. Gettel says. "What are the first three letters?"

"P-O-P."

"What are the last three letters?"

The girl purses her lips. "Puht."

"No, the last three letters."

The girl shakes her head.

"Poppleton," Ms. Gettel says, giving in just before her older kids reach the door.

Time for Buddy Reading.

At 36, Ms. Gettel is six years into her second career after life as a bank customer service rep.

She detested school grading even before Shaw got its F. How can a single grade tell the story of a school? She says it hides so much, like how far behind the children are before they even start school, the small, everyday accomplishments, the intangibles that make a school a school.

And the stigma? "What a pity" to be stuck at Shaw - Ms. Gettel must have heard it a hundred times. Even her mother asked why the kids can't read.

Her students can read, some quite well, thank you. Well, a few are behind. Some can't put three Poppleton syllables together.

Jan. 29, 2003

"On the count of five, everything off your desks and looking at me. One, two ..."

The kids in Ms. Gettel's and other classes have taken practice writing tests twice a month since September. Now the tests come every week and add reading.

To keep the kids focused on so many tests, Mrs. Pedrero awards jars of pickles, dill, to teams that score highest. Some primary and special-ed teachers take offense; their kids don't take the tests and have no shot at the coveted pickles.

Let them argue at A-graded and improving schools over how to spend the state's $100-per-student reward money. Here it's pickles.

On today's 45-minute practice test, some kids get the narrative prompt:

Everyone has a place they enjoy visiting. Before you begin writing, think about a place you enjoy visiting. Now tell the reader of your paper about a time you visited this place.

As drilled, the kids draw detailed story maps to guide themselves through the formatted, five-paragraph narrative: characters, setting, problem, important events, solution.

Others get the expository:

The students in the grade below you will need some advice for next year. Before you begin writing, think about what advice you would give the students who will be in your grade next year. Now inform the reader of your paper what advice you would give the students who will be in your grade next year.

Repeated practice tests are a royal pain, but they help, that much is clear. On a 1 to 6 scale, two fourth-graders improved from 2s to 4s and two improved from 1s to 3s.

Are they better writers? Or better test-takers? That's for the rest of the world to decide.

Jan. 31, 2003

As host county of the Florida State Fair every year, Hillsborough showcases some of its schools at Expo Hall.

Shaw didn't try to get picked until Mrs. Pedrero came. She figures even applying could help the school's reputation. Great news, they want the Egypt exhibit that math specialists Vickie Angelo and Pam Anderson put together.

Today on the sidewalk outside the math lab, a handful of the school's gifted students are Egyptians assembling the eighth wonder of the world. An architect - a real one - guides their every move. Ms. Angelo recruited him to design the Styrofoam pyramids, complete with blueprints.

Ms. Angelo is 29 and loud, like many of the kids. She calls them baby, pretty girl, beautiful, good-lookin'. She's a hugger. She tells her students what her mother told her: You get what you need, you work for what you want.

This is her fourth year teaching, her fourth year at Shaw. She likes it here, where she feels she can make the most difference. Still, it's worse than even she bargained for; a first-grader punched her pregnant midsection and screamed, "I don't care about your baby!"

Ms. Angelo looks beyond the behavior. She knows some of them have absentee fathers and mothers who dump them on the neighbors so they can live with boyfriends. "Our children need everything," she says, "and they're never going to rise up unless someone believes in them."

She thinks schools should be held accountable, just not by the FCAT, which she considers geared to the middle class. It has questions that refer to experiences beyond many poor children - family vacations, museum visits, buying clothes from catalogs.

For a teacher so down on the FCAT, Ms. Angelo has to say the F hasn't been all bad. It has given Shaw a higher priority in the district, which offered 70 teacher training sessions. The school got a $40,000 computer lab, and for being a high-poverty school, $232,500 to hire more teachers, enough so that every class can schedule an undivided 21/2 hours for reading.

The silver lining of the F helps when you're in the sun, after hours, instructing pyramid builders to double-check their measurements.

"If we were going to build real pyramids," says 9-year-old Eriquell Blanco, "it would take about 40 years and 4,000 slabs of limestone and sandstone."

Ms. Angelo wants to take the pyramid builders to the fair to see their handiwork.

Sorry, Mrs. Pedrero says, but no. The FCAT is around the corner. Time is too critical to take the children away.

Feb. 11, 2003

Inaugural FCAT testing day dawns chilly. In the media center, three students ready the morning TV show. The camera wobbles to Mrs. Pedrero, seated against a brick wall.

"Good morning, boys and girls. It's a very beautiful and important morning.

"We need to focus and do our very best job." She's got plenty at stake too, if only they knew how much. "Good luck to all of you. You've worked very, very hard."

This first day tests writing, and only fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders take it. Next month, grades 3-10 take two weeks of reading and math tests.

The FCAT (nobody calls it the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) costs $4.64 per student. It measures mastery of state standards.

After a six-month buildup, the writing test is over in 45 minutes.

Feb. 25, 2003

In the cafeteria, the 93 percent of Shaw kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches get a rotation of burgers, tacos, pizza and chicken nuggets. If they behave, Ms. Angelo picks them for one of her sushi outings.

Whenever she's up to blowing 40 or 50 of her own dollars, she'll round up four or five students after school for the quick ride to China Buffet on Fowler. "I want them to see there's life beyond 15th Street."

Fourth-grader Felicia Robinson informs Ms. Angelo that she wants raw fish for her 10th birthday. Felicia used to sass and give Ms. Angelo the eye roll. Excuse me, Ms. Angelo would tell her, you respect me, I'll respect you.

Ms. Angelo says Felicia is a sweetie who can break your heart with her cutting words.

In a tidy two-bedroom apartment, grandmother Deloris Robinson is raising Felicia and her brother and two sisters, along with whichever relatives need a place. Drugs are used outside the front door and up and down the street. Mrs. Robinson's husband is in prison, convicted of molesting a neighborhood girl.

Felicia's father is mostly absent. Her mother, Arnitra Robinson, is in prison for selling cocaine. A 25-year-old dropout, Arnitra says she wants to get out so she can make a home for her children. She's thrilled to hear that Felicia wants to go to college.

"One day we were talking and she asked what was my favorite subject in school. I just kind of looked at her like, What? I said, "math.' She said, "Me too. I'm so much like you.' I said, "You ain't like me.' "

Felicia wants to teach someday, like her favorite, Ms. Angelo, and take her students for sushi.

After the last bell today, Ms. Angelo and reading specialist Jill Aidelbaum round up the lucky few. The restaurant, quiet, elegant almost, is light years from Shaw's cafeteria.

In the buffet line, Ms. Angelo points out what's cooked and what's raw.

"That one is octopus. Try it," she tells Vernesha Sharpton, a fifth-grader scrunching her nose. "Come on over here, baby. This you'll like."

They pick a big table near the back and spread cloth napkins in their laps. "I'm so proud of you, you have no idea," Ms. Angelo says.

Vernesha chews a whole piece of something pink, black and white and lives to tell the tale. "What I just ate was so delicious!"

"Try this, try this," Tanesha Williams says, pointing at something pink and slimy. She wants her friend to go first.

Vernesha swirls the meat with her chopsticks. "It looks nasty."

It's salmon, Ms. Aidelbaum says, try just a little bite. Vernesha makes a face and swallows.

"I been ate my eel," Tanesha tells Ms. Aidelbaum. "What?"

"I been ate my eel."

"What? How do you say it the right way?"

"I already ate my eel."

Having sampled the sushi, the kids are free to roam the buffet for whatever else they choose.

Feb. 28, 2003

The Friday before the heart of the FCAT, the teachers stage an elaborate pep rally.

The kids herd into the assembly room. To one side, a table of their dreams: Nerds Ropes. Tootsie Rolls. Footlong bubble gum sticks. Jars of pickles. The best practice test-takers have their names in a drawing to win the sugar (and the sour).

On with the show, written by Bonnie Bresnyan and narrated by Bonnie Bresnyan, the special-ed teacher known for performances as Dr. Get-Along and Respectful Rebecca.

It has been a month since the Bucs won the Super Bowl and "Pound the rock" swept the bay area. Ms. Bresnyan shouts:

"Pound that FCAT! Pound that FCAT!"

In wigs, frilly dresses and oversized bows, five teachers playing kids stroll on stage and squeeze into tiny desks.

"You have to take many tests throughout the year," Ms. Bresnyan shouts. "I'm sure you guys are starting to feel just like these students."

The boombox plays Somebody's Watching Me and the five goofy teachers sing:

I always feel like someone's assessing me

and monitoring my performance

"Yes, taking all those little tests throughout the year has prepared you for the big one," Ms. Bresnyan says. "And your teachers know that you can do it!"

Music up. I Believe I Can Fly. The teachers flap their arms like birds; the kids sway to and fro.

We believe you're the best

We know that you can pass any test

We believe, we believe

We believe you can fly.

Back to the narrator: The children bubble in the correct answers and make their teachers proud. One day, Gov. Jeb Bush gets the scores of every school.

The teacher playing Bush opens a manila envelope, smiles an exaggerated smile, throws up his arms. The boombox again, loud:

Who let the dogs out!

Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof

Who let the dogs out!

"This is just a skit, just a story," Ms. Bresnyan finishes. "But this story can be your reality. Bring on the FCAT! Pound that FCAT! Pound that FCAT!"

Mrs. Pedrero gets the last word, and it's all optimism, with a hint of desperation: "You know you can do it. I know you can do it. I know you won't let us down."

March 1, 2003

It's a hazy Saturday, 9 in the a.m. Instead of sleeping or goofing off, 50 children who need extra help are at school - voluntarily - for three hours of Saturday Academy.

The cafeteria is transformed into a wireless computer lab with 40 laptops, a goody the district gave each F school.

Ms. Angelo walks a handful of fifth-graders through Riverdeep, a software program purchased for $10,000 to address the school's math woes. Like a video game, Riverdeep features Dijit, a Martian character in shades. Today's lesson: multiplying and dividing decimals.

Ms. Angelo, who will earn $2,000 extra this year for working Saturday Academy and twice-a-week afterschool tutoring, bends to help a boy whose laptop is inflicting early-morning confusion. She assures him that every experience is a learning experience.

"I learn every day."

His eyes go wide. "I thought only kids learn."

Szedriel Mulero is here, too. After she sailed through the first nine weeks with all A's and B's, math started giving her fits. She got her first C of the year on the report card that went home after Christmas break.

Szedriel blames her school's F on the "bad kids," the goof-offs. But what she frets over are her own grades.

She has modeled for two years and has big dreams of becoming a clothing designer, her name in lights. Everyone knows C's don't make dreams come true. So here she is on a Saturday.

Ms. Angelo helps her click to Riverdeep. If someone goes 0.84 miles in three hours, how fast is he going? Szedriel can't remember the formula: speed equals distance divided by time.

She scribbles on paper 84 times 3, gets 252 and types it in.

"Would you like to try again?" It's Dijit.

She divides 0.84 by three and enters 0.24.

"Would you like to try again?" The Martian is not so cute anymore.

Engrossed in the problem, Szedriel is oblivious to classmates calling out, "Ms. Angelo, Ms. Angelo" as their computers freeze, one by one.

Szedriel types in her third guess as she locks up. Salvation. Speed equals distance divided by time will have to wait to torment her some other day. Maybe Monday, when math FCAT begins.

COMING MONDAY: Waiting for a miracle.

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