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Conflict over failing schools on horizon

Educators are on the defensive as the Board of Education considers for-profit entities to help the worst cases.

Published April 20, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A potential showdown is looming between some Florida school districts and the state Board of Education over the possibility of outside entities, including for-profit companies taking over the state's worst schools.

The board is strongly considering that option and could take action as soon as next month.

But a couple of districts harboring likely takeover targets say they can handle things just fine on their own.

"I support collaboration . . . but not as far as third parties coming in," said Duval County School Board member Brenda Priestly Jackson, whose district includes Ribault High, which earned F grades the past three years.

Jackson promised a fight.

It's not clear yet which schools might be targeted, or which entities might step in as new management. In February, the Board of Education began soliciting information from private companies and other potential parties, and it's expected to take a closer look once the latest Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results are reviewed in May.

A school is considered chronically failing if it has received an F grade from the state in two of the past three years. Fourteen schools statewide meet that definition, including four high schools with triple F's.

None of the 14 are in the Tampa Bay area.

"After three F's, we're sort of compelled to acknowledge the situation and do something differently," Board of Education chairman Phil Handy said after the board discussed the issue Tuesday. The state can't unilaterally change a school's management, but it can leverage change by withholding state money, said K-12 chancellor Jim Warford.

Last year, the state board took similar action by declaring a state of emergency in several districts with problem schools, prodding changes in administration, curriculum and other areas.

Miami-Dade and Duval officials say improvements are on the way.

Miami-Dade intervened in 39 failing schools last year, extending the length of the school day and school year, beefing up literacy programs and, in the case of 11 schools, replacing principals. After all that, a state-imposed change in management is "unnecessary," said district spokesman Joseph Garcia.

In Duval last year, the state signed off on an improvement plan for Ribault High, a predominantly black school where more than 90 percent of students are reading below grade level. Since then, the school has doubled the number of intensive reading courses and offered more professional development for teachers, Jackson said.

It has also targeted elementary and middle schools that feed students to Ribault.

"Give us a chance to implement what we said we were going to do," said Jackson, a Ribault graduate.

Some district officials are skeptical that for-profit companies can do better.

The Board of Education has advertised widely to gauge interest among potential takeover parties, including pitches to universities and community colleges. But so far, the only responses have come from four for-profit education companies that focus on troubled schools: Edison Schools, Victory Schools, Community Education Partners and The Rensselaerville Institute.

In general, for-profit companies have gotten mixed reviews from their district clients.

Some credit the companies for strong improvements in test scores and attendance, while others say they simply charged more money on the way to the same results.

Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade district nixed its contract with Edison, which was overseeing Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary School in Miami.

The state handed Reeves a D last year, down from a C the year before.

[Last modified April 20, 2005, 02:56:36]

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