St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Journal of an F year

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

MELANIE AVE
Published August 25, 2003

March 3, 2003

TAMPA - The first day of two weeks of FCAT tests falls on 3/3/03. Superstitious like her late mother, principal Velia Pedrero finds the date unsettling.

How her students perform will determine if Shaw Elementary is labeled a success or a failure. Last year the state gave the school an F. Another F and Shaw students will be eligible for vouchers to attend private school.

"Breakfast is in your classroom," Mrs. Pedrero tells kids getting off the buses. At much distress to the cafeteria staff, food is delivered to the classrooms so that everyone will be in place, with a full stomach, ready to go.

The media specialist is absent today, which means the three TV personalities of KDOG are on their own for morning announcements.

Paola Delgado bends over the camera. Savon Williams and Ashley Ramos sit at a table, hands folded like on real TV. Paola fumbles with the camera lens. "I'm so nervous about the FCAT," she says.

"Ah," Savon says, "bump the FCAT."

Roll camera. Mrs. Pedrero announces that each day, the best-behaved test-takers get a popcorn party.

While the upper grades take the test, Mrs. Pedrero heads to the primary classrooms to play sugar mommy to students who passed a county writing test on the first try. When they're older, they'll get the FCAT.

These first- and second-graders are trained young: Do well on tests, ye shall be rewarded. Mrs. Pedrero calls them forward, one by one, to make a selection from her basket: Almond Joy, KitKat or Reese's.

Fresh from spreading candy cheer, Mrs. Pedrero returns to the front office to find 7-year-old Jamaul Green pouting.

He was flashing money in class, $8, and the office called his mother. When he hears she's coming to get the money, his money, he flies into a stomping fit.

Behavior problems don't take a holiday because it's FCAT day. Mrs. Pedrero is forever trying to calm upset children and works miracles with most. She'll let a child read her a book or play on her computer. Jamaul she takes to the cafeteria.

He sulks through the lunch line and pokes at his chicken sandwich. The $8 is his, he says. His granddaddy gave it to him for picking oranges. Mrs. Pedrero distracts him with questions about reading, his family, his mother's cooking. Did he get character dollars this week for good behavior?

"I didn't get none at all."

"Why not?"

"I made bad choices."

Headed back to class, Jamaul stomps along the sidewalk, head bowed, lip out.

"You're 7? You're too sad to be 7," Mrs. Pedrero says. "It must be awful to be so little and be so mad."

She leaves him - head down, his back to his class - and turns for her office, mission not accomplished.

At the afternoon popcorn party in the library, Mrs. Pedrero claps twice for quiet and gets right to reading JoJo's Flying Side Kick. To earn a yellow belt in tae kwon do, JoJo must split a board with a side kick.

"She began to worry like some of you worry when you're going to be tested," Mrs. Pedrero says. "Raise your hand if you were nervous about today."

Half the 30 students raise hands.

The room goes mostly quiet for the end of JoJo's story. She believes in herself, kicks and splits the board. Success.

"What about here at Shaw?" Mrs. Pedrero says. "We said we were going to do what?"

The children shake their heads, unsure what she's talking about. Finally, someone gets it. Of course.

"Pound the FCAT! Pound that FCAT!"

March 12, 2003

Morning show, camera rolling, cue Mrs. Pedrero.

"Guess what? Today is the last day of FCAT testing and we've all worked very hard. Give it your best effort so you can come to the popcorn party this afternoon."

A video of PE teacher Celene Lafrenaye livens up the show. She's wearing a fake beard and a sweat shirt stuffed to look like muscles. She holds up a roll of paper towels. Ta da, it's "Brawny Brain."

Brawny Brain says swing your arms across your middle. "Keep going. Work that brain."

The children in Karen Gettel's class giggle and jiggle.

Settle down now. But wait, before we start, peppermints all around. Peppermints help fire the neurons in the brain, don't you know?

For nearly 30 minutes, Ms. Gettel reads instructions aloud from the FCAT administration manual. Kids yawn; the peppermints, it would seem, have met their match.

"Please remove all materials from your desk except for a sharpened No. 2 pencil. ... Ready. Start."

Ms. Gettel writes 8:58 next to Start.

Two hours later: "Stop. Put your pencils down and close your books."

She calls them up alphabetically, their answer sheets and booklets tidy for delivery to Room 301.

All done. Oh, happy day.

Room 301 is an empty classroom, but call it the secret room for the tight security surrounding the FCAT, per Florida Statutes, Section 1008.24. Only designated people may open the shrink-wrapped materials, and only in a locked room. Each answer sheet and test booklet is given a seven-digit security number.

Assistant principal Pam Roberts does the honors. She distributes test booklets and answer sheets, then methodically collects them from teachers after testing ends.

They hang out in 301 and nibble on cake as Mrs. Roberts calls them up, one by one. The teachers are curious: Where do the tests go to be graded? The answer: Texas and Iowa.

"I think they need to be graded at Gov. Bush's house," someone says. "I think he should grade each one."

Everybody cracks up.

March 18, 2003

It's parent-teacher conference night and one parent, Rachel DeLeon, is ready to unload.

Mrs. DeLeon doesn't care about the F grade so much; she didn't even know about it for most of the year.

The red flag went up during the first nine weeks when her fifth-grader, Josh, and her third-grader, Carmen, started bringing home the same work. What was that? She learned they were in the same reading class. Multiage classrooms were one of Mrs. Pedrero's reforms.

When progress reports went home, it looked as though Josh and Carmen were flunking. A note said the teachers would meet with her at parent-teacher conferences ... in a month. A month?

Mrs. DeLeon penned a note on each report and sent them back via her children: "Please call me ASAP. Thank you."

Nobody called.

Now, finally, the day of reckoning. Mrs. DeLeon starts in on Josh and Carmen's three teachers. Why didn't anyone answer the notes I sent back?

The teachers say her kids didn't give them any notes.

"Okay," Mrs. DeLeon says, shooting Josh a look, "now we're up to two weeks with no bike."

Reading teacher Sheline Jeune hands Mrs. DeLeon a paper with large letters: You suck.

"Who wrote that?" Mrs. DeLeon demands.

"I did." The quiet voice is Carmen's.

"Who sucks?"

"Nobody."

"Somebody does. Who are you talking to like that? Do you talk to me like this? You suck for writing this."

Carmen cries and lays her head face-down on the table.

Mrs. DeLeon starts in on the teachers again: My children are two grades apart. Why do they read the same books and bring home the same work?

The answer: They use the same books only in shared reading, when the class reads together. For guided reading, they're grouped by ability and work mostly on their own.

Mrs. DeLeon isn't buying; she's getting loud. "I'm so disappointed in this school, I'm talking the principal on down to the teachers. I'm going to be honest."

"Be as honest as you want," Ms. Jeune says. "It's not my program."

"When he goes to junior high next year, is he going to be behind? I feel like he's being held back and she's being pushed."

Lori Farmer, Josh's math teacher, tries again. Kids can read the same book at different grade levels. It doesn't hurt to expose a third-grader to fifth-grade reading.

The teachers say they'll keep in touch better. Itching for battle when she came in, Mrs. DeLeon leaves somewhat pleased.

Oh, one more thing, she tells the teachers. They can expect a letter of apology from Carmen.

April 1, 2003

The Junior Cadets are Shaw's version of ROTC, led by retired Navy Capt Robert Dunne. Before the first bell of the day, the cadets buzz around him like bugs to a night light. What's with his white uniform? He always wears tan.

Today is special: Forty-four cadets will be promoted and five newcomers welcomed. Plus there's a special visitor, Lt. Cmdr. Roy Nixon, from MacDill Air Force Base.

It was Capt. Dunne's wife, Linda, who interviewed with Mrs. Pedrero last year and mentioned that she and her husband ran a nonprofit consulting business that trains future leaders.

Mrs. Pedrero slid a book across the desk: Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, by Thomas Lickona. Congratulations, Mrs. Dunne, you've just landed a job coordinating Shaw's character education program. Teaching values should reduce behavior problems and increase academic performance.

This year, Capt. Dunne took over flag-raising duties. Some safety patrol kids asked to help and the Junior Cadet program was born. From a handful of kids in August, nearly 100 have joined.

Capt. Dunne is proud of them. A report of discipline referrals shows that the cadets get in trouble far less often than their classmates.

It's two weeks into the war in Iraq. A thin boy with braids and silky basketball shorts stammers, looks at his feet.

"They tried to kill ... They tried to kill them." He talks about stuff on TV, buildings exploding.

Lt. Cmdr. Nixon bends low. "That's just part of war, okay? The good thing is, it's all for the good, okay?"

Time to start. Linda Dunne hits the CD player; trumpets play a fanfare.

They sing the national anthem, pledge allegiance, observe silence for the soldiers in Iraq. Capt. Dunne calls up the new recruits to receive their camouflage hats, or covers, as they're called in the military. He has ordered so many size 6 7/8 that MacDill ran out.

The 39 cadets promoted to second class get a silver U.S. pin for their covers; the five promoted to first class get a silver pin with an eagle and bars.

Squad leader Antonio Betancourt grabs a disposable camera from his backpack and gets five friends to pose, covers on, arms around each other.

He runs to the stage, where Capt. Dunne and Lt. Cmdr. Nixon are chatting. "Can I take a picture of y'all?"

"Where you going to put it?" Capt. Dunne says, laughing. "The post office wall?"

"No," answers fourth-grader Odell Devine. "I'm putting it in my bedroom."

April 7, 2003

Like clockwork, Martin Mulero arrives before the last bell to sign out Szedriel for the 10-block walk home.

He is sick of the daily struggle against the neighborhood, the drug dealers, the gunshots. Burglars broke into their two-bedroom apartment and took their TV, VCR and jewelry.

It's no place to raise children, says Mr. Mulero, who wants to move his wife and kids north. He wants the American dream - a God dream, the devout Christian calls it: a mansion and a Mercedes-Benz.

"Poverty," he likes to say, "is for those willing to accept less."

On the walk home, without a word Szedriel hands over her report card, the seal unbroken. All the extra hours of math practice at Saturday Academy and on the Internet have come to this. Gotta raise that C.

Dad does the honors.

Reading A

Writing A

Science B

Social Studies A

Math C

Art A

Music A

PE A

Szedriel grimaces. She pulled B's up to A's in social studies, art and music, but she sees only the C.

"As long as you're trying and doing your best, that's what matters to me," Dad says. "I still love you."

"I love you," she answers, her voice falling.

Stupid C.

If Shaw could get a C, it would not be stupid, it would be a miracle.

Mrs. Pedrero, the queen of optimism, is thrilled with the school's third progress report to the state: 75 percent writing well; 73 percent reading on grade level; 79 percent on level in math.

The big question: Will the improvement they're charting show up in the FCAT scores?

April 25, 2003

Third-graders have special reason to take the FCAT seriously this year. Thanks to a change in Florida law, if they fail the reading test, they can't move up to fourth grade.

To explain the new rules, Mrs. Pedrero invited parents of this year's 100 third-graders to two informational meetings. Last night, two parents showed.

This morning, the library is set with a neat stack of handouts, juice and cookies. Mrs. Pedrero and assistant principal Pam Roberts arrive at 8:25. Only the parents are missing.

"Well, we have five minutes left," Mrs. Pedrero says. She can't believe nobody is coming.

Mrs. Roberts sets up her Power Point presentation, just in case. They clock-watch for 15 minutes and start packing up.

What's this? A parent. They surround her.

"We would have been a total washout had you not come," Mrs. Pedrero says. "You have our undivided attention."

Brenda James says she's not worried about Khadija. Her daughter reads well. She came today to ask how one test could keep her back.

Mrs. Roberts answers. The state has backed off some. Now a third-grader who fails FCAT reading can prove herself on other tests.

That brings an end to today's informational meeting. No one touched the juice and cookies.

May 5, 2003

The state posts fourth-grade writing scores. On a 1 to 6 scale, Shaw improved from 2.9 to 3.4, just off the 3.6 state average. Not too shabby.

Mrs. Pedrero takes to the intercom to spread the news. "It's a magnificent Monday. Put your hands together. Only two other schools had more improvement than Shaw on the FCAT writing test."

Minutes later, the mailman drops a tattered white canvas bag on the front counter. Mrs. Pedrero grabs two small boxes and retreats to her office.

She and Mrs. Roberts study the breakdowns.

"Look. A 3.5 on narrative writing."

"Fifteen 4s. That's a definite improvement. One 5.5. We'll have to find out who that little one is."

Mrs. Pedrero calls these writing results the first leg in the Triple Crown of the FCAT: writing, reading, math.

The shine in the winner's circle lasts all of three hours, until Mrs. Pedrero opens the second box, overlooked in the hubbub. It has third-grade reading scores, the ones that determine who must stay back.

Of the 91 third-graders who took the test, 41 failed. Her Triple Crown is turning into a crown of thorns.

May 15, 2003

For the last set of FCAT results, Gov. Bush announces from Tallahassee that Florida students fared better than ever.

"This is a time to celebrate," he says.

Mrs. Pedrero sits at the Compaq computer in her office, her two assistant principals behind her, to find out if Shaw has anything to celebrate.

Hmm. In fourth-grade reading, 51 percent scored in the lowest level. Hardly good ... but better than last year's 55 percent.

Fifth-grade reading, 43 percent are behind, better than last year's 49 percent.

No telling if they're headed for another F. "They release it to you, and you can't even make sense of it," Mrs. Pedrero says.

Fifth-grade math - 50 percent failed - lifts their mood, sort of.

"We had a level 6?" Some unknown genius earned a top score? "We need to get them an award."

Mrs. Pedrero turns from the scores to vent frustration over school grading. Third-graders who fail FCAT reading get to use a portfolio to prove they can read. Why not let schools compile a portfolio beyond the FCAT? Mrs. Pedrero thinks it would be more telling.

Why grade at all? Responsible educators don't need the threat of a bad grade, she says. They're always working to improve.

That evening Mrs. Pedrero realizes the school's genius is an illusion. Nobody scored a 6; the highest score possible in reading and math is 5. They had mistaken Column 6 on the spreadsheet for a score.

May 23, 2003

It's the Friday before the abbreviated last week of school and the kids are acting free, free, FREE.

At the end-of-year awards ceremony, Mrs. Pedrero announces that the Leaders of Character program, run by the Dunnes, won a top honor. A statewide association of school principals gave Shaw its Little Red Schoolhouse Award.

The school cheers the fifth-graders whose FCAT scores were above level. Take a bow, Alzebeth Roman, with 5s in math and reading; Quesly Daniel, 5 in math, 4 in reading; and Jane Moore and Vinelle Wharton, 4s in reading.

Mrs. Pedrero drapes shiny medals around their necks, like winning Olympians. Vinelle clasps hers and stares and stares at it.

The fifth-grade dance that night is a hot dog-Cheetos-Mountain Dew shindig. Teachers, not the PTA, sold pencils and erasers to raise the money. They've spruced up the cafeteria with streamers and balloons.

Yesterday, Ms. Gettel discovered that Johann Best, a class leader, had only shorts and jeans, forbidden by the dance dress code.

Leaving for her father's funeral, Ms. Gettel e-mailed four colleagues: It would break my heart if he didn't attend because he was worried about his clothes. Her plea reached Mrs. Dunne, who said, let's go, Johann. University Square Mall, here we come.

For $65, Mrs. Dunne and Johann picked out slacks, a shirt, a vest, a red bow tie, suspenders and dress shoes. Thank you, Burlington Coat Factory.

At the dance, word of the shopping trip spreads. The goddess of good deeds is giddy. Why doesn't she do this more often? She's never seen a child so appreciative.

The star of the evening strolls through the door and shoots math specialist Vickie Angelo a shy smile.

"Look at you," she coos.

Johann eyes the Dunnes and tries to walk over nonchalant-like, but it's a strut, for sure.

"Johann, you outdid me," says Capt. Dunne, shining himself in Navy dress whites.

Mrs. Dunne and Johann lock eyes. She touches his shoulder, he nods.

The fifth-graders crowd the dance floor. For Angel, by Amanda Perez, they wrap arms in a tight circle and wail to the ceiling.

God send me an angel from the heavens above.

Send me an angel to heal my broken heart.

Ms. Angelo announces "last song" and her fiance, the DJ, cranks it up for Destiny's Child.

Ms. Angelo jumps into the circle, a swirl of curly hair, cream flowers and protruding belly, and pulls in the boys, one by one, to dance with her.

I'm a survivor,

I'm not gonna give up.

I'm not gon' stop,

I'm gonna work harder.

I'm a survivor.

The teachers are taking down decorations when Johann's mother arrives. Just off work in her Sam's Club pharmacy vest, Elizabeth Grayson wants to give a jar of Tootsie Pops to the right someone.

Johann leads her to Mrs. Dunne.

"I'm so grateful," Mrs. Grayson says. "Thank you so much."

Mrs. Grayson is 34 and has worked since she was 14. She graduates from cosmetology school next week.

"I wouldn't have any other school but Shaw," she tells Mrs. Dunne and Ms. Angelo. "You've brought him such a long way. I push. You push. We push together. That's all I need is a little support."

May 29, 2003

For the last day of school talent show, Ms. Gettel hands her classroom over to her students: a boy tries to make a Styrofoam cup disappear; a girl tells a politically incorrect joke; a boy pounds a desk like a drum.

From memory, Johann recites a poem from one of Ms. Gettel's books:

Now I lay me down to rest.

I pray I pass tomorrow's test.

If I should die before I wake,

That's one less test I'll have to take.

Szedriel hands her father her unopened report card. He unfolds it and grins.

Math. A.

"All things are possible," he says, so proud he wants to cry.

Along with report cards, the kids get their FCAT scores. At the bus ramp, they mob Mrs. Pedrero with questions.

A boy proudly announces that he scored a 2003. Another holds out his results: "So I failed?" He passed.

"There's so much emphasis put on the test, they're paranoid," says Ms. Farmer, who is leaving Shaw, worn down by the students.

A third-grader studies his score sheet. "I don't know what I made on the FCAT."

Mrs. Pedrero scans his paper. "You made a 3. That's a very good score."

"So I am a level 3?" What that means, he has no idea, but it sounds good.

Capt. Dunne's cadets lower the flag on the 2002-03 school year. Less than a month until the state says if it was a successful one.

June 18, 2003

Shortly before the appointed hour, 11 a.m., principals across Florida wait for the state to post school grades on the Internet.

Whether or not they believe in the system, they know the grade reflects on them. Even those who articulate why they oppose grading can't help but bask in an A.

Of all days for computer problems at Shaw. Mrs. Pedrero calls her counterpart at Pizzo Elementary, Eileen Myers. Of course, come on over, you can use a computer here.

Mrs. Pedrero and assistant principals Pam Roberts and Marilyn Isom decamp to Pizzo, built in 1998 on the campus of the University of South Florida. A few miles up Fowler Avenue, it's another world, the furniture new and bright, the floor waxed to a shine.

Ms. Myers shares her own jitters: after C's for three straight years, Pizzo just has to move up.

"Last year, we missed a B by 10 points. We're always chasing that elusive B. I'm just crossing my fingers."

The Shaw team is in place at 10:50 a.m.

Mrs. Isom fans herself with a piece of paper. "I've got goose bumps. I've got chills."

"Marilyn," Mrs. Pedrero says, "those are all signs of a heart attack."

Mrs. Pedrero tries to click to the Web page but keeps getting "Server 5 - Under Construction."

A reporter on the TV overhead says the state is about to announce school grades. Good news, 350 more schools got A's and B's this year.

Mrs. Roberts commandeers the mouse. "2002-2003 School Accountability Report" glows ominously from a blue box. She selects Hillsborough County. Elementary schools. Shaw. Submit.

Mrs. Pedrero sighs.

29 percent meeting high standards in reading.

25 percent meeting high standards in math.

74 percent meeting high standards in writing.

52 percent making learning gains in reading.

53 percent making learning gains in math.

Points earned: 287.

"We went to a D," Mrs. Pedrero says.

Barely. Eight points fewer would have been another F.

"Oh, my goodness," Mrs. Isom says, fanning some more.

They are neither happy nor sad. Just relieved.

From a back office comes a scream. It's Ms. Myers, whose school overshot the elusive B all the way to an A.

"She's probably going to put a sign up," Mrs. Pedrero says. "I don't blame her."

On the sidewalk, they hug, Mrs. Pedrero with her D, Ms. Myers with her A.

"Congratulations," Mrs. Pedrero says.

"You're on your way," Ms. Myers offers. "Just stick to what you're doing. You're moving."

"We are," Mrs. Pedrero says. "And next year," with a hint of worry, "the criteria are going to change."

Though a D is hardly a grade to crow about, it qualifies Shaw for reward money the state gives improving schools, $100 per student. Shaw will get $73,000.

Mrs. Pedrero walks out into a light rain. Ms. Myers heads inside with paper on which she has written the words she wants posted on the marquee outside Pizzo:

"All are achieving. School grade A."

The sign at Shaw will remain unchanged:

"Aug 6. School starts."

Aug. 6, 2003

Before the first bell of the new year, Mrs. Pedrero slips and leaves a footlong skid mark in the front office. Her knee swells like a purple water balloon.

Her secretary arranges an X-ray at a walk-in clinic, but Mrs. Pedrero stays put. She pops aspirin.

By noon, Ms. Angelo and the math team have penciled Aug. 18 for the first monthly math practice test, a new one added to the mix. Twice-monthly writing exams start Aug. 13, just a week away.

No time for Shaw to rest on the "laurels" of its D. The school must steer clear of double-F territory for two more years, and this year will be harder - some of the school's brightest have left.

The state says Shaw made progress, but using different criteria, the federal government says it was not enough. Under the No Child Left Behind law, students at high-poverty schools that don't progress enough in two years can transfer to public schools graded a C or better.

Already, 27 have left Shaw, including two of Ms. Gettel's top students.

Mrs. Pedrero pulls out last year's FCAT scores and runs a polished nail over third-grade reading results. The school did worse than the district and state, no argument there. But look, look at the improvement, she says. The district improved 8 points, the state 6. Shaw improved 13. See.

We're a D, yes. Our scores are lower than low. But we're improving, she says. Just look at the numbers.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.