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FCAT 2004

Plan would force changes in failing schools

If the affected districts don't act, the state board's plan may impose teacher transfers, even private takeovers of schools.

By Associated Press
Published June 16, 2004

MIAMI - Florida districts must move top-notch educators to their failing schools and create individual student learning plans or face possible suspension of teachers union contracts and private takeovers of those schools, the state Board of Education said in a plan presented Tuesday.

The proposal, discussed as the state released its yearly school grades, aims to make districts put better teachers in schools struggling to meet standards in reading, writing and mathematics. Six high schools in Miami-Dade, Orange and Duval counties are among those targeted.

"Our goal is to try to get high-performing teachers to the students who need them the most," said Jim Warford, K-12 chancellor. "Teachers and principals have all told us ... the number one thing they need is the ability to attract and retain high-performing teachers."

One important teachers union slammed the plan as a political move. United Teachers of Dade administrator Mark Richard said lawsuits could come if contracts are suspended by school boards or the state.

"We're greatly disconcerted about the fact that instead of joining together all the stakeholders and asking those on the ground to turn this around, we're getting more bureaucratically imposed, untested, unscientifically supported mandates," Richard said. His union represents teachers in Miami-Dade, the nation's fourth-largest school district.

Florida's public schools are graded on their performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Of the 2,652 schools graded Tuesday for 2003-04, 49 got an F, including 11 that also failed last year.

The proposal calls for school boards that oversee failing schools to adopt policies that minimize promotion of unqualified students, that locate, hire and place high-quality staff before the start of the next school year, and that build a success plan that includes educational goals for each student.

The 67 school boards must report in writing by July 15 whether they will comply with the plan, which also would require boards to close charter schools that have had two failing grades.

Districts that don't comply face emergency action by the state, including accepting bids from private contractors or other entities to run the schools and moving more qualified teachers to failing schools, Warford said.

Moving teachers would in most cases entail a suspension of their union contract, officials said.

"Contracts are signed and voted upon by public officials," Richard said. "There's a principle in law ... that you don't go around cavalierly breaking contracts."

Education Commissioner Jim Horne said he couldn't recall whether the state has ever used its emergency powers on school districts.

"I don't have much patience for folks who are interested in protecting a system or focusing too much on the adults. We need to be focused on the students," Horne said.

On Sept. 21, Warford will tell the Board of Education which schools have complied with the rules and which haven't. Warford named Jackson, Northwestern, Edison and Booker T. Washington high schools in Miami-Dade, Jean Ribault High School in Jacksonville and Jones High School in Orlando as the "biggest challenge" among the state's failing schools.

"High schools, we've known all along, were going to be the last school level to show improvement, because you've got ninth-graders and 10th-graders who are two, three, four, five academic years behind because of social promotion," Warford said.

Also Tuesday, Horne said he plans to begin an investigation of 159 schools, including 26 in the Tampa Bay area, that transferred high percentages of students in the months preceding the FCAT.

A DOE review found that the schools had transferred 5 percent or more of their students in the three weeks preceding the FCAT exams in February and March, raising concerns that struggling students were shipped out to boost schools' overall test scores.

When students are moved from one school to another shortly before taking the FCAT, their scores do not count toward either school's grades.

"Cheating is bad," Gov. Jeb Bush said at a news conference Tuesday to announce FCAT grades. If schools gamed the system, "there should be consequences," he said.

About 40 percent of the flagged schools are in Polk County. The others are scattered across 29 of the state's 67 districts, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties.

Polk County Schools superintendent Jim Thornhill, who has questioned the accuracy of the state's data, said Tuesday the number of students moving in the three weeks before FCAT testing this year was comparable to any other three-week period during the school year. Thornhill was not at the Miami meeting.

Horne said the state is not ready to say Polk is guilty of anything. "We have not indicted anybody," he said. "We have not accused anybody. ... We may find out there's really nothing to it."

DOE spokesman MacKay Jimeson said factors other than FCAT considerations could be behind high-percentage shuffles, such as neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income, transient families.

- Times staff writer Ron Matus and the Ledger newspaper in Lakeland contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 16, 2004, 01:00:39]

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