Florida schools fighting to improve their students’ academic performance will remain in limbo for the 2020-21 school year, never knowing how close they might have been to being rid of the label “turnaround school.”
These schools receive intense support and scrutiny because their school grade must improve, or they risk possibly being closed. The Florida Department of Education calculates school grades using mandatory statewide exams — known as the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA).
However, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of these exams in the spring, and school grades cannot be calculated. Turnaround schools must remain under the microscope of the FLDOE for the upcoming school year.
Polk County’s Griffin Elementary and McLaughlin Middle School & Fine Arts Academy are among the many schools throughout Florida that must continue following special improvement plans.
The FLDOE is requiring both schools to continue using outside companies as external operators. These companies provide additional guidance, training, coaching and management expertise. The total cost to continue using the companies is more than $830,000. Philip O’Brien Elementary is also following a state-supervised turnaround plan, but does not require an external operator.
Principals at McLaughlin Middle and Griffin Elementary say they can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if students would have been able to take the FSA.
Principal Sharon Chipman and Acting Principal Debra Wright Hudson work together as a team at McLaughlin Middle.
Before the pandemic closed the campus, Hudson said their school’s strategy for success was to keep class sizes small, and dig deep into student performance data. Teachers would target struggling students, particularly those needing help with reading and math skills, Hudson said.
“Using small group instruction, we were able to give a lot of direct, intensive support to our students,” she said. “Our teachers worked together to build creative plans for instructing students on standards. We felt confident that our students’ performance would improve.”
Melissa Durrance, principal of Griffin Elementary, said progress monitoring also showed her students were making promising learning gains in math, reading and science.
“We were extremely optimistic that our students would perform well on the FSA this year,” Durrance said. “Change does not occur overnight, and we have seen increased progress over the past few years.”
This past school year, Griffin Elementary was able to hire two paraeducators to help support students and provide more small-group remediation, she said.
“In addition, we were fortunate to hire some amazing ‘effective’ and ‘highly effective’ teachers and did not have any substitutes teaching classes in the tested grade levels,” she said. “Our staff and students worked hard to make great gains this past year, and we will continue to do so in the upcoming school year. We are modifying our school theme to ‘One Team, One Dream — NO EXCUSES’ and are prepared and committed to achieving our goals.”
Both principals at McLaughlin Middle credited their teachers and entire staff for enduring all of the challenges of the 2019-2020 school year. The two administrators are confident that the school’s students will keep making progress in the fall.
“We could not have had a better staff,” Hudson said. “They met challenges head-on, and they were committed to the end. Even now over the summer, teachers have been helping to paint the campus, and they’re investing many hours of their time to plan for the next school year.”
Hudson said she regrets that her eighth-graders will move on to another school and didn’t get a chance to demonstrate how far they had come along.
“Our teachers put together a video tribute to honor our eighth-graders, and we shared this on social media,” she said. “We wanted to wish them well and encourage them to keep working hard for even greater success in the future.”
Griffin Elementary also posted an end-of-the-year message with a special song for their students. To view the video, click here.