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Schools chosen on grade alone worries educators

Parents switching schools yearly, chasing FCAT scores, might play havoc with a choice plan.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


Pinellas County parents, in three years, will choose where their kids attend school. They will have piles of statistics to peruse -- test scores, attendance rates, discipline numbers -- to make smart choices.

But now the state gives each school an easy-to-understand letter grade.

Pinellas school leaders worry that parents will think grades are all they need to know about a school -- that an A school must be great and a D school must be lousy. That could wreak havoc on the ambitious plan to let parents choose if their choices change every year with the grades.

"As you get into the choice plan, that's the first thing parents will look at," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley.

The Pinellas County School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have agreed to settle a 1964 lawsuit that led to court-ordered busing for desegregation and race ratios in schools. As part of that agreement, the district will stop assigning students to schools based solely on their home address.

In fall 2003, the county will be divided into attendance areas, parents will choose a school in their area, and selections will be made through a computer process. Race ratios will be maintained through 2007, but then they can disappear.

Officials with the school district and the Legal Defense Fund are counting on parents to thoroughly research a school's strengths, including specialty programs created to attract students. They hope that some parents will find the perfect school for their children far from home, which could keep schools integrated after ratios end.

They hope parents won't give the grades, which are primarily based on the state's standardized reading, writing and math tests, much credence. But they know some will.

It only takes a call to Manatee County to find out that Pinellas' concerns are well-founded. At a hearing last year about proposed changes to the state's accountability grading system, Manatee officials complained about calls from parents who wanted to trade schools.

"I've been spending lots of time talking with parents who want to transfer to a higher-rated school," said Lynette Edwards, assistant superintendent for academics for the Manatee County schools. "You have parents who look at the grades and want to transfer, and you have teachers who are discouraged."

So far, the Pinellas school district has not seen a measurable fallout from the grades, such as a sudden increase in special requests from parents who want to move their kids from D schools to A schools. But principals do field calls from parents with lots of questions.

After Pinellas Park Elementary School was graded as a D last year, principal Vivian Neumann reassured parents that the grade only measures how her school does on one day -- when students take a test -- not how well it does every day.

Yet Neumann was ecstatic to get a C this year, but not because she thinks the grade is valid. Instead, she is glad to shed a stigma that demeans teachers and worries parents.

"We're ever so grateful that the school's grade went up," Neumann said. "But it doesn't show that we're truly an A school in disguise."

Tyrone Elementary School Principal Jim Lott said he teaches parents that the state measures a different group of students each year, making it unfair to compare grades year to year. He hopes the grading system eventually will change.

"I think the grade will take on a greater importance, but I am not sure the public in general will understand how the grade is derived," Lott said. "What we really need to measure is the growth of children."

If the fluctuating grades do take on more importance when choice starts, will fickle parents bounce their children around?

Will parents flee Starkey Elementary, a C this year, for Southern Oak Elementary, which soared from a D to an A? Will students stampede from Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg (a D for the second year) to Tyrone Elementary, which jumped from a C to an A?

Marlene Mueller, the district's director of pupil assignment, guessed that two groups of parents will be most likely to rely on grades: parents new to the district and those with children entering their first year of elementary, middle or high school.

Once parents get their child settled in a school, they are less likely to seek change, she said.

"There's a lot of people in C and D schools that are very happy there and wouldn't want to go anywhere else," Mueller said. "This goes back to the whole issue of: what does the grade really stand for?"

Jim Madden, a district administrator leading work on the choice plan, said the district will set up family information centers, located around the county, where parents can view statistics about each school. That information, he said, will be more telling than grades.

Enrique Escarraz, lead local attorney for the Legal Defense Fund, worries that some white parents will use the letter grades as an excuse to complain about their children being bused into predominantly black neighborhoods in south Pinellas County.

Most of the district's poor or African-American students live in neighborhoods south of Ulmerton Road. That's where all of the district's D schools, in 1999 and 2000, are.

"Will it become an excuse for those parents, a large portion of our population, who don't want to acknowledge they still have some racial prejudice?" Escarraz asked. "If Tallahassee continues to use evaluations that don't mean much, then the question will be how well the school district makes it known just how useless the information is."

Campbell Park Elementary Principal Jim Steen, whose school rose from a D to a C, is proud to provide more meaningful statistics.

He'll discuss smaller class sizes, the 46 students removed from the struggling student list this year and a program that pairs students with mentors. He'll talk about the pep talks for students and teachers, who were united this year by the slogan "Campbell Park is a D-lightful place to be."

"I think the data proves what is going on in our school," Steen said. "I know a C is average, but we're not a C school."

- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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