tampabay.com

Angst looms over schools that must show progress

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 9, 2007


DADE CITY - It's the last day of FCAT testing, and folks at Cox Elementary are breathing a sigh of relief as they give the final makeups and pack up the materials.

But worry tinges the air. The school has yet to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind law. If this year's results don't improve, the school's teachers could find themselves looking for new jobs.

"We are trying to prepare ourselves for what may be, and we don't know what may be," said principal Leila Mizer. "All we can do is hope and pray that we make AYP."

Cox is not alone. Eight other Pasco County elementary schools, all serving high percentages of low-income children, face similar sanctions.

They're trying to keep a positive outlook nonetheless.

"At the last faculty meeting I told the teachers, 'You've done the very best. You've prepped the kids as much as you could. It will be what it will be,'" said Terri Mutell, principal at Marlowe Elementary, another of the possibly affected schools.

Pasco County has 20 schools that receive Title I federal funding because of high levels of low-income students. Those are the only schools that suffer the consequences of No Child Left Behind.

If they missed AYP two years, their students could choose to attend a different school. After three years, the schools had to provide tutoring from outside vendors. The fourth year meant entering "corrective action," such as implementing a new curriculum or hiring a consultant to advise the school staff.

They've all done that.

It's the fifth year that has them spooked.

The law calls for districts to plan "restructuring" the schools at that point, and so next year could be one of preparing for a whole new world at these nine campuses. The five options are:

-Reopening the school as a public charter school.

-Replacing all or most of the school staff.

-Hiring a private management company.

-Turning operation over to the state. (State education officials have said they do not want to take over schools.)

-Other major restructuring of the school's governance that makes "fundamental reforms."

The menu is clear, acknowledged Elena Garcia, the district's Title I supervisor.

"But what does it mean? And how is it going to be implemented by the state?" she asked. "That is unknown."

The state Department of Education has provided little guidance.

Garcia noted some new rules have floated around in draft form that might lighten the load on schools that score well in the state's grading system but fail on the federal guideline. That could be good news for Marlowe, which earned an A last year, and Lacoochee, Pasco and Schrader, which earned B's.

An A-rated school like Marlowe can miss AYP if students in just one demographic group don't reach set academic goals. In Marlowe's case, it was a handful of students with disabilities who didn't do well enough in math.

Marlowe principal Mutell had only muted optimism.

"If we stay true to how we performed last year, we should be fine," she said. "But until it all comes out of draft, it leaves you in a quandary of what will come."

Already, the schools have taken several steps to improve.

Cox, for example, brought in consultants to evaluate its programs. It began using data more rigorously, with the results guiding instruction decisions. It implemented afterschool tutoring, started testing children more frequently, and trained teachers in new methods.

The work isn't always easy, though, as English is not the first language for more than 60 percent of the students. Reading was the top priority, then the school's math scores started to slide, so Cox made math a priority, too.

"We have tried to prepare the kids without panicking them," Mizer said. "We have made clear to them that they don't have to be perfect, but they have to do their best."

Ruth Reilly, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said there's enough anxiety to go around in the district as everyone waits for the test results, which aren't due until June. Whatever the outcome, though, she added, the schools will not stop seeking to improve.

"Regardless of whether those schools make AYP or not, those schools still have needs, and we will still be keeping to our corrective actions," Reilly said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com (813) 909-4614 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:

Missing the mark

These nine elementary schools did not make adequate yearly progress under federal guidelines because at least one subgroup of students did not achieve academic benchmarks on the FCAT. If they miss again this year, they face restructuring.

Cox: Math, all groups except students with disabilities

Gulfside: Math, all groups; reading, students with disabilities

Hudson: Math, economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities; reading, students with disabilities

Lacoochee: Reading, students with disabilities

Marlowe: Math, students with disabilities

Northwest: Math, all groups

Pasco: Math, black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged; reading, students with disabilities

Schrader: Math, economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities

West Zephyrhills: Math, economically disadvantaged; reading, students with disabilities