Even Top Schools Feeling The Heat for Kids Who Lag

By Leslie Postal and Denise-Marie Balona

Orlando Sentinel Staff Writers

June 26, 2009

Many of Florida’s top public schools — even its A-rated ones — need to work harder with students struggling to keep up with state standards,according to results from the latest school-accountability system.

The new, complicated state program tries to identify how much improvement is needed on campuses and to offer targeted help based on the depth of a school’s struggles. It meshes Florida’s system of grading schools with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Across Florida, only 17 percent of public schools avoided a spot in the new accountability system. These schools stayed out by earning A’s, B’s or C’s and making progress with students who typically struggle, such as poor children, minorities and those still learning English.

The rest, including more than 330 in Central Florida, will face extra scrutiny, and possible state oversight, in the coming year. That includes plenty of schools, such as A-rated Winter Park High, that shine on Florida’s annual school report card.

Schools that fell into the most critical category in the new system eventually could face tough sanctions if they do not improve.

No Central Florida school is in the worst category, but one each in Orange and Osceola counties is among the 66 schools to get an “intense level of assistance” from the Florida Department of Education this year.

Why another system of accountability? Doesn’t Florida already grade schools?

State educators want to “bring fairness and uniformity” to their accountability system so all schools get grades and have to meet the goals of the No Child law. Previously, only schools that took federal Title I money had to worry about the No Child requirements, which focus on the success of students who often have trouble in school.

Florida wants all schools, even those that do well overall, paying attention to kids who are lagging. That means A-rated Greenwood Lakes Middle in Seminole County, for example, needs to work harder with its low-income students on reading.

“The whole idea of this is to create a lens on all students being successful,” said Joe Burke, executive director for the Florida Department of Education’s regional office in Central Florida.

How did this occur?

The state began grading schools in 1999 based on how children perform on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. In 2002-03, schools that received federal poverty money came under the No Child umbrella. Last school year, Florida combined its grading system with the federal system to create a trial program called “differentiated accountability.” In the spring, lawmakers decided to make the trial program permanent and to expand it to include all public schools. Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill into law two weeks ago.

How does it work?

Schools are put into one of five categories, based on their A-to-F grade and on how much progress they’ve made on the requirements of the No Child act. Those with A’s, B’s or C’s and success during the past two years in making “adequate yearly progress” in a number of key areas are exempt from the new system. The rest — 83 percent of Florida’s schools this year — end up in one of the program’s five tiers.

How can an A school end up being tagged as needing to improve?

That’s the key difference between Florida’s school-grading system and the No Child law. Both use FCAT scores to judge Florida schools’ performance. But the state system looks at overall achievement and improvement. The federal one looks at the performance of certain “subgroups” of kids: minorities, poor students, youngsters with disabilities and those still learning English. If one group — say, poor kids in reading — falls short, then the whole school fails to make adequate progress.

That means Maitland Middle can earn an A because at least 78 percent of its students are reading and doing math at or above grade level, yet finds itself on the new list because its poor students, about 30 percent of its population, are behind in both subjects.

So what happens to the schools in the new system?

It depends.

Schools that take federal Title I money and are in the lowest categories will have to review wholesale what’s happening on their campuses, including whether teachers helped students makes gains on the FCAT. They could be forced to transfer out teachers, and principals, who did not make the grade. In Orange County, district administrators started that process at nine schools last week. These schools will be closely monitored and given assistance by the state. They’ll also have a long list of requirements to meet.

Schools that do not get federal poverty money and have decent grades will have to make smaller changes that can be monitored by district administrators. They may need to create plans for how to boost performance among students falling behind.

Parents and students might not see a lot of big changes, except one: There might be a massive overhaul of teacher aides during the next couple of years as the educational requirements for the position increase.

Margie Murray, director of special projects for the Seminole County school district, said parents also might notice that their children are being assessed much more frequently during the school year.

“The difference is it does call more attention” to kids who are struggling, said Lee Baldwin, senior director for accountability for Orange schools. “In the past, they only had to focus on the school grade. Now they’re going to be under more scrutiny.”

Is there extra money for schools to do this?

Yes, according to state educators. School districts are getting extra Title I money this year as part of the federal stimulus package, so that will help eligible schools meet the new requirements. But improvements in non-Title I schools must be paid for from regular school budgets, and that worries some local educators.

Are school administrators unhappy about this?

This new system is frustrating for many of them. Some schools will have to revamp programs and hire better-educated teacher aides, among other requirements, and the changes have come suddenly.

Some administrators also are upset the state made the law retroactive to 2003. The schools added to the system this year are being judged on their performance for the past six years — even though there was no law in place before this month.

“We still have questions about their legal authority to make it retroactive,” Murray said.

Leslie Postal can be reached at lpostal@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5273. Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at dbalona@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5928.

Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel

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Author: fundeducationnow

Fund Education Now.org is permanent grass roots, non-partisan group created by parents to inspire and empower voters to advocate on behalf of Florida's children. We believe that Florida's public education crisis is about more than money. Parents, long silent on this subject, must now stand up and lead the discussion and clearly articulate what we, the end-users of public education, want and expect for our kids and our state.

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