Seeking More Intervention In Failing Schools, House Promotes Charters As ‘Schools of Hope’

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Florida has more than 100 schools that it labels persistently failing. Those schools have earned D’s and F’s for several years in a row. Many of them suffer from high poverty and high teacher turnover. The issues facing parents, teachers, and students in such schools are complex. Now a House panel has unveiled a plan that would change the way the state deals with such situations.

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The Jefferson County School district in rural North Florida is the poster child for failing schools. The last time the district earned a C-grade was in 2011. More than half of Jefferson high school students have been retained at least once. The district has cycled through teachers. Principals. Administrators. Even superintendents. There’s been enough frustration to go around.

“I’m upset. I’m upset because I feel like our district failed the kids. Failed the teachers,” says Jefferson Terri Clark.

“They are disgusted with how far down our district has gone,” County Commissioner Betsy Barfield said back in August.

The situation stumped former Superintendent Al Cooksey, who told the state board of education last August “I don’t know what we’re going to do. That’s why I came down here and sat all day.”

And it angered former board member John Padget, who described the situation thusly: “If this were a business, it would be bankrupt.”

Jefferson recently made the decision to consolidate its two schools into one, and convert that school into a charter. It was done under mounting pressure from state education officials. But Jefferson is not the only school system with problems. And its circumstances are not unique.

“Alachua. Bay. Brevard. Broward. Collier. Dade. Desoto. Duval…” Representative Chris Latvala reads a list of districts with chronically failing schools.

“Escambia, Gadsden. Hamilton. Hillsboro. Indian River. Jefferson. Lake. Lee. Madison. Manatee. Marion. Orange. Pasco. Pinellas. Polk. Putnam, St. Lucie. Seminole. Volusia.”

There are some 115 schools on the state’s failure list and they hold some 77,000 students. In 2015 the Tampa Bay Times captured the plight of students and families in five schools identified as “Failure Factories” in Pinellas County. School Board vice chairwoman Rene Flowers there are multiple reasons why schools fail.

“I want you to look at a holistic approach to the way we address the problem. It’s not just money. It’s not just teachers. It’s not just the community. But it’s all of us. It’s like if you take a leg off a four-legged stool. It’s going to wobble. All we’re asking is that when we wobble you give us help to put the leg back underneath the stool so we can sit comfortably,” she says.

But Latvala argues its time for a change.

“They’re basically looking for a Hail Mary. This is our version of a Hail Mary, but it’s one I believe, will be caught,” he says.

Latvala is sponsoring a proposal aimed at replacing failing schools with what he calls “Schools of Hope”. The measure seeks to break the failure cycle by incentivizing charter schools to set up shop near traditional schools that are chronically failing. The bill provides about $200 million for them to do so. It would also streamline the state’s schools accountability system and for those in what are called turnaround plans, it would remove district-managed options, requiring districts to choose between reassigning students to other schools, converting failing schools to charters, or hiring an outside operator to run them.

Republican Representative Manny Diaz says the chronically failing schools have had years to improve, but haven’t been able to do so—despite receiving millions in extra state and federal funds.

“$921 million from federal funds in Florida earmarked for academic success targeting this exact population. $843 million in categoricals in state funds. The results—the same. At one point do we say enough is enough?” He says.

Charter schools under Latvala’s proposal would have to prove a track record of success dealing with similar student populations has college attendance rates greater than 80 percent. But the move troubles Democratic Representative Larry Lee, who says failing schools are often a reflection of troubled communities. And he points to another model the state should consider: community schools, which integrate public health and social services into schools.

“At one school, they had a laundry room in the school where they had a washer/dryer where they literally, the child had an extra pair of clothes. What these schools do, they bring the community in. I’m a firm believer in the old African proverb, it takes a village, to raise a child.”

Democratic Representative Shevrin Jones is a former biology and chemistry teacher. HE says replacing one type of school with another isn’t the answer for parents working multiple jobs and students with very real problems.

“These were students coming into the classroom, my first period of the day, whose parents weren’t home in the evening. Students came to the classroom high. Students came to the classroom who hadn’t eaten breakfast. This is the reality we’re speaking of.”

Jones says he went from being an AP science teacher, rated highly effective, to teaching at a low performing school where he was rated needs improvement.

“To my colleagues sitting at this table, if you’ve never been a classroom with 30 students and the doors shut, if you think you can change a child because you said another entity can come in and do it, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Turning to charter school operators to address failing schools passed overwhelmingly in the House Education Committee and Senate Education Chief David Simmons has expressed support for the idea. Whether something like it will work is yet to be seen. Jefferson County Schools has become the state’s first charter school district and the experiment will begin in the fall. In the meantime, the state, and local communities will continue to grapple with how best to address the causes of failing schools, which include breaking the cycles of poverty that often contribute to them.

The story was published by WFSU on March 30, 2017.

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