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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Fighting to succeed
Cox Elementary may face restructuring if its students don't make more progress.
By JEFFERY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007
Third-grader Jose Vasquez, 9, counts on his fingers as he struggles with a math problem during the final day of summer school at Cox Elementary. Cox is considered a failing school and will face restructuring next year if it doesn't show drastic improvement.
[Zach Boyden-Holmes | Times]
[Zach Boyden-Holmes | Times]
Instructional assistant Jeanette Williams helps third-grader Jose Vasquez, 9, with math as Anthony Richardson, 10, looks on during summer school.
Leila Mizer's voice swelled with frustration.
"You're going to make me say it? Aren't you?" Mizer said plaintively into the telephone.
On the other end, the caller wanted to know what had gone wrong with her school's academic performance. You can call Cox Elementary Mizer's school, as she's led the place for 11 years.
"We missed a C by one point," she said of the school's decline. "I'm the only D elementary school in Pasco. That makes me feel really horrible."
Mizer refused to make excuses. She readily admitted that many of the school's almost 500 students are nowhere near grade level, and that the gains the kids made - and they did make gains - weren't good enough.
Even when calculating for growth over time, the state doesn't project the school to be on target to meet its achievement goals three years from now.
* * *
Anyone who understands education trends would not be surprised after considering the kids Cox serves. By the numbers, they're 95 percent poor and 90 percent minority. Nearly two-thirds don't speak English at home. Two of every five who start the year at Cox don't finish there.
So many kids at Cox struggled with a recent FCAT reading passage about escalators that the school later took the students to University Mall in Tampa, just so they could see one. On the bus ride - a first trip on the interstate for many - one girl mistook Malibu Grand Prix (a place for mini-golf and go-carts) for Disney World.
The children have so few enriching experiences, in fact, that about a third of the teachers volunteer each Thursday after school to offer drama, cooking, dance and the like. They raise money for the transportation, too.
Cox can't even field a PTA.
Important factors, all, Mizer acknowledged, saying the school has "far to go." But education is the children's ticket out of poverty, she added. So the school must work even harder.
"I don't think the children are holding back," she said. "We just have to give them more."
Time - perhaps the one thing that Cox teachers wish they had more of - is of the essence. If the school can't show that its students are making adequate progress by March, the federal government could force Cox to "restructure."
The possibilities include replacing the staff, revising the curriculum, extending the school year or day, and bringing in outside management. Planning already has begun, just in case.
Third-grade teacher Magda MacKenzie worries that none of the options will benefit students.
If someone new comes in to run the school or teach classes, she wondered, how will they serve the children better than those who know their parents, their foibles, their history? A new curriculum might help, she said, but shouldn't the school give the many initiatives it has already put in place a chance to work?
Restructuring is little more than "the destruction of schools," said MacKenzie, who came to Cox four years ago after teaching in Oakland, Calif. "The government is just seeking a quick fix."
* * *
MacKenzie and others on the Cox staff have no illusions about what hard work lies ahead.
They got a jump start during the summer.
Eighteen Cox educators spent their June afternoons creating detailed lesson plans for every teacher to use during the new school year. They pored over which pre- and post-tests to include, how to sequence concepts and even ideas for how to make lessons more fun, such as "the envelope, please."
That's where kids will get sealed envelopes containing questions before each lesson, and at the end, they will open them to see whether they've learned what they were supposed to.
"We want to work smarter," school psychologist Zhivago Adderly said during one of the sessions, while others typed furiously on iMacs behind him. "Our hope is not to take away any of the creativity of the teachers, but to provide support and guidance for the teachers."
Ideally, the resulting workbook will give teachers a framework so they can spend more time honing in on individual student needs. That's a critical piece toward success, Mizer said.
To further help, the school's new assistant principal, Latoya Jordan, spent her first days on the job in August preparing reports for each teacher. She detailed how their students performed on the last FCAT, so they can see where they succeeded and where they need to improve their instruction.
Experts will teach teachers how to better understand and use testing data once the school year begins.
As part of the planning, the team also looked for ways to incorporate science content into math and reading lessons. With only 13 percent of the school's fifth-graders at grade level or above on the 2007 FCAT science exam, the staff knows it must boost students' science knowledge without losing the other academic strands.
"We really have to pay attention to science," Mizer said. "When you have extended response, but you don't have background knowledge, you really don't have anything to hang it on."
The teachers worked hours at a stretch, barely rising from their tables in the media center except to make copies or grab a soda or some chocolate to see them through. Though paid with Title I funds, the teachers volunteered to spend the time working on the curriculum instead of vacationing.
"We are rising to the challenge of making sure that when children leave our doors, they have a higher quality education," Adderly said.
* * *
It's not as if the school hasn't tried. As assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly put it, "Some wonderful things have already happened at Cox," though perhaps "not at the right intensity."
Here's just a partial list: small group direct instruction, Accelerated Literacy Learning, extra specialty teachers for students who are still learning English, Breakthrough to Literacy, ongoing progress monitoring, uninterrupted reading.
The school still is implementing Learning Focused Strategies, a district effort aimed at reducing the achievement gap. It expanded summer school this summer to include needy incoming kindergartners. And Mizer has hired Cox's first math resource teacher to help fashion a stronger math curriculum and give teachers new strategies for teaching the subject.
Teachers also volunteer to help students after school. Some spend so much time at Cox that they transferred their own children there just so they can see them more often.
Many parents recognize and appreciate all the effort.
"I thank God for this school," said Marie Pearson, whose son, Jakeevis, recently completed third grade. "They go out of their way, beyond the call of duty."
Pearson related how her son pushes the bounds of authority, and had academic problems to boot. He faced a second year of third grade before summer school. Pearson praised the school for not giving up on Jakeevis, or other kids like him.
She could not imagine changing the school, despite its poor performance on state and federal measures.
"You can't blame the teachers, because they try," she said. "I've seen even the principal with a bunch of (kids), teaching. I know they work."
The teachers know it, too. And some of them have walked away. This summer, Cox lost seven of its 29 teachers - the highest turnover rate in Mizer's tenure.
"They get paid the same for their frustrations as those teachers at Sand Pine," an A-rated school in solidly upper-middle-class Wesley Chapel, Mizer said. "How do you hold onto them?"
In the first days of August, Mizer hadn't filled three slots, including a crucial third-grade special education job that she had advertised four times.
* * *
Many of the teachers have no intention of leaving, despite the multitude of challenges that Cox presents. They take heart when they see a student to an "aha" moment. They liken their work to a mission filled with many "small wins," if not the big one.
The school's low grade "just makes you try harder," said fifth-grade teacher Donna Denaro, who lives nearby. "It's just the needs of the kids. You feel like you can do something for them. That's what drives me."
Reilly, the assistant superintendent, said the district has made Cox a priority for the new school year, and it will provide whatever help it can as Cox tries to avoid sanctions.
The staff remains upbeat, if not necessarily optimistic.
"Time isn't on our side," math specialist Caroline Graham-Stewart lamented. "It's going to take some time to see the effects of what we've done. ... Hopefully with you telling our story, people will know we have made gains. We just have a way to go."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Raymond B. Cox Elementary
- It is named after longtime Pasco educator Raymond B. Cox.
- 95.6 percent of Cox students received free or reduced-price lunches last year, compared with 41.9 percent districtwide.
- 51.2 percent of Cox students were considered limited English proficient, compared with 4 percent districtwide.
- 81 percent of Cox's lowest performing students made gains on 2007 FCAT math, compared with 67 percent district-wide.
- 19 percent of Cox's teachers in 2006 had advanced degrees, compared with 30 percent districtwide.
Sources: Pasco County School Board, Florida Department of Education