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Despite storms, students thrive
In areas hit hard by last year's hurricanes, FCAT scores improved. "We were stunned," a Charlotte school district spokesman says.
By RON MATUS and CONNIE HUMBURG
Published May 5, 2005
If students in Charlotte County had bombed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this year, they could have blamed Hurricane Charley.
The Category 4 storm destroyed six of their schools last August and forced 16 into double sessions. More than 1,000 students were left homeless.
But preliminary FCAT results for Charlotte third-graders show the unexpected:
Districtwide gains in both reading and math. And some of the biggest improvements coming at some of the hardest-hit schools.
"We were stunned," said district spokesman Mike Riley.
His theory: Nothing like a natural disaster to put an assessment test in context.
There are other explanations being offered. Maybe students rolled up their sleeves. Maybe some of their lower-performing classmates dropped out amid the damage.
Whatever the reasons, officials in other hurricane-ravaged districts are reporting similar results.
Last year's quartet of hurricanes caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Florida schools, displaced thousands of students and teachers and forced all 67 districts to close for at least one day. Seventeen districts closed 10 or more days because of Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan.
Yet for some schools, stormy weather apparently brought a silver lining.
In Charlotte County, Neil Armstrong Elementary and Peace River Elementary - both destroyed by Charley - responded by recording double digit increases in third-graders who moved up from the lowest level in reading and math.
In Escambia County, Hurricane Ivan forced students at Longleaf Elementary into double sessions at another school. Longleaf third-graders posted the biggest gains in the district, with the number reading at grade level jumping from 48 to 69 percent.
Initial results are "nothing short of spectacular," said Ronnie Arnold, the associate superintendent in Escambia, which suffered $80-million in damage and closed for 19 days.
District officials are crediting the resiliency of children, the gumption of communities facing crises and what might be called an oasis effect - schools offering calm amid chaos.
Enrollment dips are a possibility, too.
Could some schools have benefited because hurricanes forced their poorest and most vulnerable students - often the lowest performing students - to move to other districts or quit school altogether?
One Martin County school shows a 27 percent drop in third-graders from 2004 to 2005 - and a 65 percent increase in students reading at grade level.
After Charley, Charlotte County's enrollment dropped by 1,100.
"It definitely could have an impact," Riley said.
But without breaking down individual scores, it's impossible to know how big a factor, he said, echoing officials in other districts.
All of this is a far cry from last fall, when some hurricane-hit districts were asking the state if they could opt out of the FCAT, fearing students were too traumatized and school grades would suffer. The latter possibility would affect teacher bonuses and bring possible penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The state Department of Education said no, instead setting up an appeals process for schools where scores dropped. It also allowed some districts to administer the FCAT up to two weeks after the usual starting date.
It's still too early to measure the hurricanes' full effect on test scores.
Third-grade results won't be final until the department releases statewide figures next week. FCAT results for other grades aren't in yet.
And the preliminary results weren't good for every hard-hit school.
In banged-up Hardee County, third-graders in three of four elementary schools showed improvement. But Bowling Green Elementary saw big drops, said superintendent Dennis Jones.
That school suffered the most damage from hurricanes. It also has the highest percentage of low-income children.
"It's not coincidental" that its scores fell, Jones said.
Even if the FCAT trend stays positive, district officials said observers shouldn't overlook the possibility that in individual cases, tragedy did exact a toll on academics.
For those students, there is no appeals process.
"We absolutely had families that lost their homes," said Cynthia Rountree, director of instructional support for Indian River County, which got rolled by Frances and Jeanne. "That is tremendously stressful to a child."
Overall, the number of Indian River third-graders scoring at the lowest level in FCAT reading dropped from 22 percent to 14 percent, according to preliminary results. And unlike Charlotte, Indian River gained students.
In a weird way, district officials said, the hurricanes may have been positive.
They forced everyone to focus.
"Those teachers knew we were in trouble," said Malcolm Thomas, director of evaluation services in Escambia. "They cut out the fluff."
Schools also offered something missing in many homes: a sense of normalcy.
Students "wanted to see schools and friends rather than ... destroyed property," said Vicki Wolfe, director of elementary education in Santa Rosa County, another Panhandle district walloped by Ivan. "Some were probably put in the yard by mom and dad to work, and that was probably harder than reading and math."
That's not to say normalcy was easy.
Most districts scrambled to make up lost days by nixing holidays and teacher planning days. Some schools went on double shifts. Some brought in portables.
In Charlotte County, district buses traveled 750,000 more miles this year, running between 5:25 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Even now, some Charlotte students are living in cars or in homes jammed with three or four families. Some of the houses still have blue tarps for roofs.
"After Hurricane Charley," Riley said, "the FCAT was a breeze."