Some Schools Barely Make Passing Grade; Educators Say Focus Needs to Shift from Duval's Worst to Those on the Brink of Failure

Article excerpt

Byline: BETH KORMANIK, The Times-Union

When the state released this year's school grades, Duval County School Board members congratulated themselves on one particular success story: No elementary school earned a failing grade.

The board saw that as proof that changes in curricula and teaching styles worked and said reaching children at younger ages will pay off in the future when they attend middle and high school.

But the difference between passing and failing was slim at several schools. Three elementary schools came dangerously close to failing, making a D only by a handful of points, and seven others earned solid D grades. One middle school was one point away from a failing grade, and a high school also flirted with failure.

These schools are not eligible for up to $8.6 million the school system will pour into failing schools, even though the elementaries on the edge of an F all feed into the county's failing middle and high schools. This could spell a potential wave of new failing schools and hurt efforts for boosting the grades of current F schools.

It's a scenario not lost on principals at schools on the brink of failure. S.P. Livingston Elementary barely earned a D from the state, scoring three points above the cutoff for an F. It feeds into Eugene Butler Middle School and Raines High School, both repeat F schools.

"We understand very well the situation that many of our middle schools and high schools face," Principal Darrell Perry said. "They begin with us, and a lot rests on the work that we do at the elementary level."

Perry said his school did not do a good job teaching math last year. Only 21 percent of students scored at grade level or above in math on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. For the new school year, which begins Monday, Aug. 9, the school has hired a math coach and will emphasize teaching the kind of applied math that students will find on the FCAT. That means not only knowing that 5 times 5 is 25, but applying the skill to word problems, Perry said.

The school will test students at the beginning of the school year and check their progress every two or three weeks, Perry said.

"This creates a sense of urgency," said Perry, a second-year principal. "We weren't that far. We know the work we have before us, but there are some lessons learned as well. We have that to build upon this year, knowing exactly where strengths are and weaknesses are."

Overall, most elementary schools earned high grades, which are assigned A to F based largely on FCAT performance. Of the 104 elementary schools with grades, 46 received A's and 20 earned B's.

But the 10 elementary schools with D's could pose a problem.

Every failing middle school has at least one D elementary school feeding into it. The district's repeat F high schools -- Ribault and Raines -- both have students that come from failing middle schools and D-grade elementary schools.

But the school system's focus this summer has been on how to fix the failing schools. Superintendent John Fryer developed a plan for repeat failing schools that outlines curriculum changes, after-school programs, mentoring, business partnerships and cash incentives for veteran teachers who transfer to failing schools.

Fryer's plan targets only current students, not the elementary students who one day will attend the schools. Such schools as Northwestern Middle, which was one point away from failing, are not eligible to take part in the plan, which will infuse up to $8. …