Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer
A couple of days after the state Department of Education released grades for all public schools, some students visited West Jacksonville Elementary Principal Sylvia Johnson.
The students were worried that they caused the school's failing grade. They apologized for not working hard enough. They feared that Johnson would lose her job and that the state would close their school.
After listening to those students, Johnson changed her attitude toward the failing mark.
Like principals from the other Duval County schools that received an F, Johnson was crushed. But after speaking with her students, she knew she had to focus on future improvements, not past failures.
"We are not going to feel bad for ourselves," Johnson said. "Yes, we are under pressure and, yes, we have a lot of work to do, but we will meet that challenge. You can say we are an F school in that we are fantastic, we are fabulous and we are focused on improvement."
Duval principals and other administrators at F schools say they will set a positive tone when students return to school Wednesday. They will briefly discuss the failing mark that day, but they also will emphasize what must be done to make gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
The school grades are based on student performance on the FCAT, which covers reading, writing and math.
School officials say there is an urgent need to improve. Under state law, any school that receives an F twice during a four-year period is declared failing and students there become eligible for vouchers to attend other schools. Schools are funded based on how many students they have. If students take vouchers to attend private schools, then public schools will lose money.
Duval County has a dozen schools that received an F in June. Those schools have three more years to worry about. Another school, Annie R. Morgan Elementary, has only one more year; it received a failing mark in 2000.
But there is agreement that fear cannot be the tool used to improve.
"We are serious and concerned, but you don't panic," said Jimmie Johnson, chairman of the Duval County School Board. "The schools must be focused and have plans for improvement. That is the right approach."
Superintendent John Fryer said the school system knows what approach to follow. Five elementary schools received an F in 1999, but they all improved and none has received the mark since.
Fryer said the new group of failing schools will use a similar approach. Principals and teachers will analyze test scores and examples of student work to determine where children need extra help. Those areas will be emphasized in class and during extra help sessions offered before and after school.
The schools will receive increased funding, additional teacher training and a liaison to coordinate volunteer efforts. They also will meet regularly as a group to share strategies and exchange ideas.
"We have a proven track record and we will be successful," Fryer said. "I'm not nervous because we can do this."
Rufus E. Payne Elementary Principal James Young has shown he knows how. He used to be the principal at Pine Estates Elementary, a school that received an F in 1999 but steadily improved and got a C this year.
Young will use a similar strategy in his first year at Rufus E. …