The two elementary schools must earn a C this year in order to avoid closure, conversion to a charter or takeover by a private management firm.
Manatee County School District officials are cautiously optimistic about the future of two elementary schools that must show significant improvement this school year to avoid further consequences from the state over low performance.
Daughtrey and Rogers Garden-Bullock elementary schools are both in the final year of a state-mandated turnaround process after several years of D and F grades from the state. But Pam Craig, the director of school improvement for the district, said both schools are showing improvement and will likely earn C’s this year.
If either school fails to earn a C or better, the district will be required to hire an education management firm to take over operations of the school next year. That is the least extreme of the three options the district could choose. Under House Bill 7069, a sweeping education reform bill passed in 2017, schools that earn a D or an F for more than three years must be closed, converted to a charter or handed over to a private management firm. The bill also eliminated a one-year planning buffer, meaning Manatee officials had to finalize their intentions in January for what they will do if either school doesn’t improve its grade this year. The total cost for hiring Learning Focused, the management firm, will be $776,500, according to a copy of the plans provided by the district.
Rogers-Garden Principal Pat Stream said she doesn’t believe that will be necessary at her school.
“I know what the kids are doing at school. They are working really hard and they seem to be understanding what they are reading, and they are working hard on math and science,” Stream said. “What I am seeing is the sort of work that is going to get us a C or above.”
Manatee Education Association President Pat Barber said the work taking place in those schools might seem foreign to teachers not used to working under such pressure from the state.
“If you have never been in a turnaround school, you probably don’t know what teachers who work in those schools have to do,” Barber said. “Their time is scripted — they have to spend a certain amount of time in certain ways, using certain materials because people have decided these are the best research-based ways to create the turnaround … The stakes are so high now.”
The grade will rest partially on the shoulders of children who may still be learning English. Under Florida law, once a student has been enrolled in a school in the United States for at least two years their scores count toward their school grade. At Daughtrey, roughly half of the population is classified as English Language Learners, and at Rogers-Garden, 32 percent of the population have the classification.
“That’s a huge impact,” said Elana Garcia, the district’s director of federal programs. “If you have a large proportion of children coming in not speaking the language, you have to spend time teaching them the language while also teaching them the content. The work they have to do is double.”
How to improve
Rogers Garden had three straight years of D’s, and the last time the school earned a C was in 2011. At Daughtrey, the school had four straight D’s and last earned a C in 2014. Both schools sit among some of Manatee’s poorest neighborhoods, and the Daughtrey community, in particular, has seen a dearth of social services.
“Turning around” the two schools may sound like an endeavor to bring order to rambunctious classrooms, get kids excited about learning, and restore the passion of long-suffering teachers. While all those things may happen during a turnaround, the state cannot measure order, excitement, or passion. What the state relies on are test scores — and most notably for struggling schools, the performance of children in the bottom quarter of their class.
Daughtrey Principal Marla Massi-Blackmore, who splits her time as principal at Tillman Elementary as well, has a reputation for getting quick results. When Blackmore arrived at Tillman in 2016, the school had received two consecutive F’s. In her first year, she brought the school up to a B, more than doubling the number of children performing on grade level for math, from 24 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2017. The number of children reading on grade level increased as well, going from 16 percent in 2016 to 24 percent in 2017, but the bulk of Tillman’s points came from improving test scores among children who remained below grade level.
In the state’s school grade formula, schools are rewarded for improving the performance of children in the bottom 25 percent and for learning gains — regardless of whether those kids hit grade level. The most valuable students are often referred to as “bubble kids,” meaning they are on the cusp of advancing a level based on midyear test results. Getting a student in the bottom quartile to improve to level three (considered “grade level”) would be a points bonanza for the school, meaning the child’s score counts three times — once as a bottom quartile gain, once as an achievement gain (points for scoring level 3 or higher), and once as a learning gain (points for advancing from one level to the next).
The idea behind this calculation is to level the playing field. If the only metric were what percentage of students passed the test, then schools would not receive recognition for improving the scores of their lowest-performing students.
But Barber said the state’s accountability system pushes teachers to focus resources on the students who could yield the school the most additional points — especially when those points are necessary for the school’s immediate future, which is the situation in which Rogers Garden and Daughtrey find themselves.
“All of our instruction is now driven by data, so teachers are being trained to look at all the stats and all the data on all their students,” Barber said. “They may be looking at using different strategies with the kids who are closer. (They may say) ‘OK, if this kid can master these three reading skills, he would be a level three instead of a level two, so we are going to pull him aside and have someone work one on one with him.’”
However, even if teachers do end up cherry-picking bubble students, because of both schools’ status as “Title I,” with students from lower-income families, and in the bottom 300-performing elementary schools in the state, all students — regardless of bubble status — receive an extra hour of reading instruction and an extra half-hour of math.
Efforts to recruit volunteers fall short
As the district mobilized its most effective turnaround principals and put new academic programs into place, a consortium of community organizations led by the Bradenton Kiwanis Club set the lofty goal of getting dozens of adult mentors into the schools to help in the turnaround efforts. Schools + Community = Success (S+C=S, for short) was a collaborative effort to recruit more than 100 mentors to work with children at Rogers Garden and Daughtrey.
Despite high hopes, only 13 new mentors have been put in place this year. The before-school program has not yet started at Daughtrey, and it was not up and running at Rogers Garden until January.
Dawn Stanhope, president and CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Manatee County, said the group ran into a roadblock that they couldn’t get around at the beginning of the year: Teachers were already stretched thin, and not all the positions were filled. S+C=S had hoped to start before-school programs so the mentors could spend an hour one-on-one with a child, reading together and working on homework. But such a program requires teacher oversight — something that was hard to find with unfilled positions and teachers facing demands.
“They already had a teacher shortage, so to find teachers who could come in early and do our program was challenging,” Stanhope said.
While turnaround schools may be in the greatest need of a community rallying around them, that is not always easy to facilitate, Barber said.
“The turnaround schools have so many extra things they have to do, including extra time that teachers have to put in collaboratively planning, learning different ways to plan their lessons and all kinds of things,” Barber said. “Those things cause teachers’ afternoons to be extended, so being able to also extend their mornings may not be possible for people. I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to. They just may not be able to.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/