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Schools work, then wait

The state's grades are due out soon, maybe today. Taylor County Elementary, saddled with an F last year, has worked for a higher grade.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2000


PERRY -- Even with 180 students on campus for summer classes, Taylor County Elementary School is quiet in mid-June. Janitors drag floor buffers down silent halls. Bright sunlight bounces off the almost empty parking lot.

Beneath the calm, anxiety brews in tiny Perry.

photo
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Izell Montgomery, principal of Taylor County Elementary says he is "upbeat in the sense that I know we worked and we have a history of growth. Are we going to grow enough? I don't know."
It's a brand of unease that only kids used to suffer. But in public schools across Florida, the adults are feeling it, too.

The school grades are coming. Maybe even today.

For the second year, the state is preparing to assign A to F grades to schools based primarily on standardized test scores. Depending on the results, as many as 60,000 students at 78 schools -- including about 550 at Taylor County Elementary -- could be eligible for taxpayer-financed tuition vouchers to transfer to private schools this fall.

The tests were over in February. All that's left is the waiting.

"I'm upbeat in the sense that I know we worked and we have a history of growth," said Izell Montgomery, principal at Taylor County Elementary.

"Are we going to grow enough? I don't know."

* * *

Taylor County nestles high in the curve of Florida's Panhandle, about 60 miles southeast of Tallahassee. Perry is the biggest town, home to a huge wood pulp mill and most of the county's 20,000 residents.

Of three county elementary schools, Taylor County Elementary enrolls the majority of local children. Students arrive as third-graders, after attending Perry Primary through second grade.

About two-thirds of the students are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunch. But unlike at many high-poverty schools, they aren't likely to move in and out during the year.

While less than 10 percent of county residents graduated from college, almost 50 percent of Taylor County Elementary teachers hold a master's degree or higher.

Last year, the state handed the school an F because too few students scored adequately on reading, writing and math tests.

"When you receive a grade of that nature, you feel hurt, you feel rejected," said Montgomery, 51, a former band director who has been principal since 1989.

"We went through that initial shock and we went through the grieving. And we came back to work."

The school zeroed in on reading and math, blocking out 21/2 hours each morning for uninterrupted lessons, and shrank the third-grade classrooms to 20 students each. Teachers began using a new drill-and-response teaching style that had worked for schools in other states.

photo
[Times photo: Kevin Sullivan]
Mary Becht teaches summer school Thursday at Taylor County Elementary School in Perry.
"Everybody has felt the impact of this," said third-grade teacher Mary Becht, a slight, smiling woman who has taught elementary students for 31 years.

The entire faculty, Becht said, "is really anxious. That's how I felt the whole year. I think (test scores) are going to be up. "It's got to get better."

* * *

Even as Florida's voucher program is poised to grow exponentially, its future remains in question. In March, a Leon County judge ruled that using public money to pay private-school tuition violates the state Constitution.

The judge, however, has enforced an automatic stay of the ruling -- allowing more vouchers to be granted while the state appeals the case. (Currently, students at only two schools in Escambia County are eligible for vouchers. Fifty-two are using them to attend private schools.)

No schools in the west-central Florida region -- Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties -- received F grades last year. No local students, then, will be eligible for vouchers this fall.

But administrators and teachers are bracing for the results nonetheless.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores could be delivered as early as today to school districts. The grades, based primarily on the scores, could arrive simultaneously or days later.

Students in fourth, fifth, eighth and 10th grades will receive their individual scores by mail later this summer.

* * *

If Taylor County Elementary receives another F, students will have several choices -- some more feasible than others.

With transportation provided by the district, they could transfer to another county elementary school ranked C or higher. Two schools, one in Perry and the other 40 miles south in Steinhatchee, earned C grades last year.

Or, they could transfer to a higher-ranked school in a neighboring district, but their parents must get them there.

The most controversial option -- taking a voucher to a local private school -- may not be available to Taylor County students. Voucher proponents, who conducted a statewide campaign to encourage private schools to accept the transfers, had not found any willing schools in Taylor County as of late May.

In that respect, Taylor County is an exception. In 13 of the 15 counties where students could be eligible for vouchers this fall, 130 private schools have signed up to accept them, according to John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman and voucher proponent.

Shelby Gibson, whose 9-year-old daughter Nicole is entering fourth grade at Taylor County Elementary, wouldn't switch to a private school even if she could. Nicole made the A-B honor roll last year and reads on a fifth-grade level, said her mother, who is a frequent substitute teacher.

Gibson, 28, doesn't think the state grades accurately reflect the quality of her child's school or the skill of the teachers.

"They seem like they're putting this school down," she said.

Gibson and her husband, a construction worker, received a form letter from Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher advising her that Nicole soon could be eligible for a voucher.

"Like I told my husband, I don't have a problem with it (the F grade), as long as the teachers are teaching the kids. That's all they need."

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