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FCAT success a yearlong effort

Two schools that seem very different have both earned straight A grades. How? Focus, experience, and loads of support.

Published June 17, 2005

VALRICO - In many ways, Alafia and Claywell elementary schools could not differ more.

Alafia has gone through six principals in 18 years; Claywell has had the same leader since it opened in 1981. More than 25 percent of Alafia's students come from outside the school's Valrico-Bloomingdale attendance zone; nine in 10 Claywell students come from its Northdale neighborhood.

Alafia's population is mostly white and upper middle class; almost half of Claywell's students are not white, and nearly one-third of the children are considered low-income. Claywell also is a regional center for students with learning disabilities.

When it comes to providing top education, though, Alafia and Claywell stand in an elite class with only 34 other Florida schools. Each has earned an A in the state grading system every year since the program began in 1999.

And that's no simple task.

Early on, the state graded schools by comparing one year's test scores to the next. Last year's third-graders would be compared not with themselves as fourth-graders, but instead with this year's third-graders.

"It was easier for those high-performing schools to maintain (their grades)," said John Wiegman, associate executive director of the state association of district superintendents. "When learning gains were added to the formula ... it became harder."

It's not so easy to bring students already at the highest achievement levels to even higher performance, Wiegman explained. Year after year, it can become a daunting task.

"Every year we worry," said Claywell principal Glenda Midili. "You don't get used to it. It's still astonishing to us."

Criteria and formulas change almost every year, Alafia principal Ellyn Smith added. Sometimes, she said, it's pure luck that a school makes or misses an A.

It takes a confluence of forces to achieve the top rating over and over. Both Claywell and Alafia, despite some cosmetic differences, have several similarities that point them to long-term success. Among them:

- Experienced teachers. Teachers at each school have spent, on average, 16.2 years on the job. That's on track with other seven-A schools, such as McMullen-Booth Elementary (15.3 years) and Garrison-Jones Elementary (17.3 years), both in Pinellas County. By comparison, the average Hillsborough County teacher had 12 years experience, and struggling Robles Elementary teachers averaged 6.9 years.

"Over the course of the years, it's been having a strong instructional staff willing to perfect their craft and analyze what the kids need and meet that need," said Smith, who has led Alafia for two months.

- Active parents. Alafia has won a Golden School Award, given to schools where the total number of volunteer hours equals twice the number of students, every year since it opened in 1987. Claywell gets anywhere from 14,000 to 20,000 volunteer hours each year.

"I do it because it basically sends a message to my kids that I believe their education is important," said Jo Neuman, Claywell's PTA president.

- Supportive community and businesses. Each school has several business and civic partners. Several former Claywell students, now in middle school, even volunteer in classrooms each morning before heading to class.

Perhaps most notably, the schools also eschew the increasingly popular pep rally mentality surrounding the days leading to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, on which the state grades are based. Instead, they focus on creating an atmosphere where teachers and students get excited about learning all year long.

Teachers share ideas that work, as well as those that don't, with their colleagues instead of staying isolated in their classrooms. Students are infused with the notion that learning, in addition to being their personal responsibility, also is fun.

"I don't believe in that external burst of information," Midili said. "I think you have to have strong roots. Then you're building a knowledge base and not relying on short-term learning."

Education is a privilege, she continued. So giving students prizes for showing up and answering questions simply changes the focus of what learning is about, she said: "We're not an M&M school."

Smith agreed. The important thing, she said, is to teach students what they need to know, so the high-stakes test doesn't seem all that imposing.

FCAT, Smith said, is "just another day" at Alafia Elementary.

Alafia PTA parliamentarian Debbie Cohen saw how important that was for her "high stresser" daughter Jessica, who enters high school in the fall.

"When it used to come to the FCAT, they had to handle her with kid gloves so she wouldn't be nervous," Cohen said. "The teachers that I've encountered with my children, they try to take the stress off the test."

Midili and Smith said they wished they had a magic formula to sell to other schools, so they could replicate the successed that Claywell and Alafia have enjoyed. No such luck, though.

"You understand it's fortunate circumstances," Midili said, adding that she tries not to brag. After all, she said, "you can be a peacock one day and a dust mop the next."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or

[Last modified June 16, 2005, 01:17:02]

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