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Cox hopes new focus will save the school
The school pins its hopes for survival on a new focus on higher achieving students, especially in science.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 14, 2007
Cox Elementary is now offering science classes for high-performing students such as, from left to right, Michael Washington, 9, Deshaun White, 9, Abigail Mitchell, 10, and Tonya Ramirez, 9, who are shown working with an ongoing science experiment involving germinating seeds.
[Mike Pease | Times]
DADE CITY - Cox Elementary School's new attitude was evident right inside the front door.
"Achieving Starts With Believing," proclaimed a banner strung between two poles leading to the media center. "Believe, Achieve, Succeed," declared a brightly colored sign hanging in the entryway.
Teachers sported buttons with that saying on their shirts. Children got pencils etched with the same words of inspiration.
"That is our motto," principal Leila Mizer explained that first day of classes, as she sat in her office reviewing enrollment figures. Kindergarten was proving a sticking point - too many 5-year-olds, not enough teachers or classrooms.
"We are really going to help to inspire the kids to believe that they can achieve," she continued. "Because they have to succeed."
By now, everyone is well aware that Cox faces life as they don't know it if students' achievement doesn't dramatically improve. Few at the school focus on what restructuring under No Child Left Behind might bring a year from now, though.
Instead, they have their eyes on what they can do today for the children, most of whom come from low-income families, many of whom don't speak English at home.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the school has loads of programs for the low achievers. Cox has many such kids, after all, with less than half of any demographic group performing at or above grade level on the 2007 FCAT exam.
What's new is Mizer's focus on the strong students, who generally do well but don't always show the gains their teachers expect. For the quick-thinking, competitive types, she got a couple of teachers to start an Odyssey of the Mind team.
And for the handful of fourth- and fifth-graders who scored 4 or 5 on the FCAT reading test, she recruited some teachers to begin an enrichment science course. While the lower-level readers get their daily dose of state-mandated remedial reading, these kids do experiments, research on the Internet and write essays about what they've learned.
"We felt like we wanted to give these kids that extra push," said media specialist Lori Meredith, one of three teachers who conduct the lessons. "So many times here at Cox, we do remediation. We've noticed that those kids who are average kids and above-average kids were not seeing the growth. We thought this would be a push start."
They still focus on reading. How can you learn science without it, after all? But by including hands-on activities and giving the students time to delve deeper into subjects, the teachers have brought some excitement to the school library, where the classes meet each morning.
It's no accident that the instruction centers on science, either. Just 13 percent of last year's fifth-graders scored at or above grade level on the FCAT science exam. This way, students enhance their understanding of science while having fun, too.
Fifth-grader Abigail Mitchell added 10 drops of liquid fertilizer to a jar of Lacoochee River water, as part of an experiment on the effects of pollution. She scrunched up her nose as she observed that the smell made it pretty clear the water came from the Lacoochee.
Abigail nodded vigorously when asked if she enjoys the class.
"It makes school more interesting," she said, barely looking up from her experiment. "Last year, I don't think they were doing enough to make it interesting. The only thing we did was read books."
Abigail turned to her three partners, who began discussing what might happen to the water over the 14 days they will watch for effects. As they talked, Meredith reminded them to also write their observations, starting with what they had just done.
"Just like the FCAT," she said. "Read, write and explain."
Fourth-grader Maritza Chois, whose mother teaches at Cox, said the experiments help her better understand the concepts. Her team had just mixed pink dish soap, water and oil in a beaker and shook it up to see how the materials would react together in another lesson on pollution.
"We're probably going to take more field trips, too," fifth-grader Amanda Gilbert, one of Maritza's partners, chimed in.
"It's going to be so cool," Maritza added. "They talk to us in a way that other teachers don't."
"It makes us think harder," Amanda said.
In the first weeks of school, the children learned about natural disasters and ecosystems. They hunted spiders and snakes in the yard. They coped with the death of Skittles, the sadly unhealthy class guinea pig.
Brandon Maldonado, the school's technology specialist, spent one morning teaching the students about animal adaptations, having them use the Internet to see how similar animals like seals and sea lions differ, and why.
When he asked the students if they wanted to take the oral quiz, they instantly and enthusiastically cheered. Some had trouble pronouncing a few of the more complicated words, but their comments showed their understanding of the material.
"We can delve into things in a more open way, maybe using a more creative way than in the classroom groups, where the intensity needs to be more defined," Maldonado said.
The high achievers don't necessarily get that type of instruction in a classroom with children who are struggling, Meredith said.
"You do as an educator feel like you have to pay attention to them, and then what happens to the others?" she said. "I believe the pull-out groups, we're going to see much more of this, because it takes them where they need to go."
The first quarter ends Wednesday. Already, the teachers say, the kids are improving.
Still, they have a way to go, the teachers add. While they might know more, some of the students have trouble writing it.
More broadly, teachers throughout Cox continue to learn how to use testing data to shape their lessons. And other efforts continue, too.
A teacher from the Alabama-based Space and Rocket Center visited for three days to introduce all students to the school's Earth and space theme. Educators from USF's Tampa Bay Writing Project started weekly visits to help third- and fourth-graders improve their writing.
The school's restructuring team, meanwhile, met once. It plans monthly sessions to create a plan for Cox, just in case.
Mizer said she hopes the initiatives focusing on the top kids will help, and not just so the school can escape penalties.
"If they're coming to school just to maintain, that's not real good for motivation," Mizer said. "This is an opportunity for them to experience things they might not otherwise get. These are kids with initiative and drive and a will to learn more and do more."
The school must serve them, too, she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.