Byline: MAGGIE FITZROY
Jacksonville Beach Elementary fifth-grader Jonathan King rolled two dice onto his desk. One came up number 5, the other number 6.
Jonathan and classmate Derrick Carroll had recently learned fractions in math class, and Wednesday morning they were playing a game involving what they'd learned.
"You can't reduce it," Derrick said, looking at the five-sixths fraction the dice represented. "My turn."
This year at Jacksonville Beach Elementary, students are playing a lot of learning games in small groups and are also splitting into groups to work on assignments while the teacher helps others.
In addition, students are reading a lot of books targeted at their individual levels.
Last year, the school used that classroom model, called "differentiation," with such success that the school is now one of the top five in the state to demonstrate learning gains for all students based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results.
The magnet school for gifted and academically talented students has been an FCAT-rated A-school every year since 1999.
Students are accepted into the school based on a lottery, and about a third of them are considered gifted through testing. The others are academically talented, which means "we are constantly raising the bar," said Principal Jill Leinhauser.
The school's students have always shined, so there wasn't much room for improvement in FCAT scores.
But last spring, when they came out, Jacksonville Beach Elementary staff were delighted to learn students had far exceeded all school goals in six categories assessed by the standardized test.
To track accountability, the test shows how many students are high achievers in reading, math, writing and science, what percentage shows gains in learning, and if the lowest performers are making progress and how much.
Last year the school's goal, determined by the Duval County School Board, was to go up 18 points in those areas.
Instead, the school went up 60 points.
Scores showed that 98 percent of all students scored as high achievers in reading and math, and 100 percent in writing.
When a school is as high as Jacksonville Beach is already, "going up is difficult," Leinhauser said, "because there are only a few areas left to work on."
Over the previous five years, the school had gone up a total of only 11 points.
"It was a phenomenal year," said Leinhauser, who credits the focus on "differentiation" for the success. "We were all beside ourselves with the incredible improvement our children showed."
Standards coach Johanna Hayden, who trains teachers on teaching techniques on an ongoing basis, defines differentiation as "matching instruction to individual students."
Typically when teachers introduce a new concept, they begin with a mini lesson for the entire class. …