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Cleveland's C is a mark of success

Cleveland Elementary School got one of the higher grades among schools with high concentrations of poor students.

By LINDA CHION-KENNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 11, 1999


TAMPA -- Cathy Valdes wants to focus on the good that can come out of the new grades the state has awarded its public schools. Sometimes, though, she worries about the bad.
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Click here for a full-size chart of how Hillsborough County elementary schools performed under the state's complicated criteria.

Valdes just left as principal of Cleveland Elementary, one of Hillsborough's poorest schools, where 96 percent of children are considered poor because they qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Now, as an area director for 19 schools, Valdes will be joining school officials throughout the state in spreading the word about what works to improve test scores, especially in schools with high concentrations of poor children, where most of the lower grades were given.

In Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, no high-poverty school did better than a C, and 46 of the 89 schools got a D. In these schools, the poverty rate is at least 60 percent. In the 23 schools with poverty rates above 80 percent, only Cleveland got a C.

That puts Cleveland in rare company across the state.

Of the 280 elementary schools with poverty rates above 80 percent, 55 got an F, 206 got a D and only 17 got a C. Two schools were ungraded.

How did Cleveland do it?

By targeting the needs of each child, Valdes said.

At the Seminole Heights school, that included hundreds of tutors working one-on-one with students and increased contact with parents, including home visits by teachers and weekly reports on a child's progress.
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Click here for previous stories on grading public schools.

Helping even more children succeed is the good that can come out of the state's new accountability system, Valdes said. The bad, Valdes added, is that the scores could be used to look for scapegoats, especially in prosperous neighborhoods where a small group of racial, ethnic or economically disadvantaged children might have kept a school from getting a higher grade.

She says she already has heard such talk and doesn't like it.

"If that's the end result of this whole thing, then we will have failed miserably," Valdes said. "Every school needs to realize, every parent needs to realize, we are all part of a larger community and we need to have a social conscience. We can't turn our back on any child."

Jim Hamilton, deputy superintendent for instructional support, agreed: "I would certainly hope we make every child feel they are the most important person that ever walked into a school, no matter what mode of transportation they took to get there."

Hamilton said it is "extremely predictable, but totally unacceptable" that poverty correlates highly with lower grades. The issue needs to be confronted, he said, if Hillsborough hopes to achieve its goal that every school improve at least one grade level next year.

Indeed, a Times analysis shows:

All 34 Hillsborough elementary schools that got a D were among the poorest of the district's 106 elementary schools. They are among the 59 schools that qualify for federal assistance because at least 60 percent of their students live in poverty. Twenty-two of the schools, including Cleveland, got a C, while only three got a B.

On average, 83 percent of the students in D schools were poor versus 28 percent in A schools, 39 percent in B schools and 54 percent in C schools.

Fifty of Hillsborough's 106 elementary schools had subgroups of students -- ethnic or poor -- who failed to meet testing requirements for a B. Many of the other schools, including all but two of the A and B schools, had subgroup students who tested just as poorly, but there weren't enough of them for their scores to count. To be statistically valid, the state requires that a subgroup have at least 30 students.

In some cases, nearby schools serving similar populations got different grades, even though they had similar achievement levels. For example, Hunter's Green in New Tampa got a C because only 23 percent of its black fourth-graders scored at or above a Level 3 in the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Also, only 27 percent of its black fifth-graders scored at or above a Level 3 in FCAT math.

To get a B, at least 50 percent of the students in both reading and math are needed to reach that plateau.

At nearby Tampa Palms Elementary, the black students missed that percentage by 4 points in both categories, but fewer than 26 black students were tested, so the scores didn't count. The result: Tampa Palms got a B.

Superintendent Earl Lennard warns against focusing too much on the numbers.

"There's no question we have to be concerned about the stigma that presents itself when a school gets graded," he said. "And we have to be real concerned about how the criteria is being used for other purposes, such as real estate brokers determining housing values.

"The real important test of a school is what you do with all the youngsters you have in that school. If we could get to the point where our expectation for every child is for them to rise to their highest possible level, and every youngster advances, then all our schools will be A schools, regardless of the grade the state gives."

Valdes knows firsthand the stigma a low grade can bring.

Four years ago, her school was on the state's list of critically low performing schools, then the equivalent of getting an F.

When the word came, "it hit us like a ton of bricks," she said. "We were devastated. The students felt like they had been slapped in the face and the teachers were shocked, because they were on such a high, feeling that we had truly been making inroads."

The school got off the list, but not because of the state' censure. Rather, Valdes said, because of steps that had been taken before the list was released by teachers committed to combatting the often crippling challenges facing a school with a high concentration of poverty.

"I believe that every kid can learn, I really do," she said. "I'm talking about high-poverty kids, minority kids, but we have to put appropriate resources to the problem."

At Cleveland, that includes:

Paid and volunteer tutors and mentors who at any given moment during the school day are working with sizable numbers of students.

Before- and after-school programs that extend the school day with instructional and enrichment activities.

Using federal money for high-poverty schools to hire a full-time social worker and a full-time psychologist, as well as extra teachers to reduce class sizes.

Daily instruction in social skills to help children control anger, avoid fights, conquer fears and learn to get along with others who look or act differently.

Protecting a block of time for reading instruction that bans interruptions such as field trips and special activities.

Knowing a child well enough to determine what is keeping that child from attending school. If it's a problem at home, a teacher visits the home. If it's a pair of shoes, the kid gets a pair of shoes. Cleveland has been "adopted" by the Carrollwood Elementary School PTA, which provides clothes for children.

Hiring a staff that accepts full responsibility for both a child's progress and struggles. "If a kid is failing, our teachers don't look to the child to see what's wrong with the child," Valdes said. "They look to themselves, to see what they can do to address the needs in the child."

That spirit of caring needs to extend beyond the schoolhouse, she said.

"This is a community issue, and we need to address it as a community," Valdes said. "Otherwise, there absolutely is that danger that we're going to become more segregated by subgroups, ethnic or economic, and we'll be turning our backs on the children who need us the most."

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