Putting Education Reform To The Test

“Significant Gains:” How A Tampa Middle School Earned Its ‘A’ Grade

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Mount Pleasant Standard Base Middle School principal Yolanda Capers. Mount Pleasant was the only state middle school to jump to an A from an F grade this year.

Last year Mount Pleasant Standard Base Middle School’s grade dropped to an F from an A.

Principal Yolanda Capers says the grade stung because she saw her students improving.

“It’s devastating because…our students were still learning,” she says. “58 percent of our students made learning gains in reading. That’s a lot of learning gains. However we still received an F.”

This year, school leaders warned more Florida principals would know Capers’ feeling.

State education officials made tests harder. Students also needed a higher score to earn a passing grade.

With tougher standards school grades would fall.

More than one-quarter of Florida elementary and middle schools saw their grade go down as a result.

But not Mount Pleasant Middle.

The small charter school was the only Florida middle school to improve to A from an F.  Orlando’s Nap Ford Community Charter and Duval County’s Highlands Elementary School made a similar jump to an A from an F after state education officials revised school grades late last week.

Capers got a peek at student scores about a month ago and did the math. Despite the warnings, Mount Pleasant Standard Base Middle had done well.

“I knew how to calculate so I kind of figured we should get a good grade,” she says. “My students made significant gains.”

Just 294 Florida elementary and middle schools improved their grade this year – that’s fewer than 10 percent of the state’s 3,145 schools. (Florida has yet to release high school grades, so those figures may change)

Mount Pleasant has just 94 students.

Most students qualify for federal free or reduced lunch, a commonly-used proxy for poverty.

The school is just a few classrooms, a library and a computer lab in a small pre-fabricated steel building near a downtown Tampa Interstate.

So how did Mount Pleasant do it?

Capers says they focused on a weakness: Math.

“Our students have two hours of math per day,” she says. “And one of the classes is to reinforce just the basic skills. And then the other math class is to teach them the regular math.”

The math doesn’t stop at the end of the class.

Any student who did not earn a top score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test must attend afterschool tutoring. And even some students exempt from the tutoring still come, Capers says.

The school also enjoys some advantages as a charter school.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

A list of "power words" in the Mount Pleasant Middle library.

Capers asks students and parents to sign an agreement outlining their responsibilities. The school can ask a student to leave if they fail to uphold the deal.

Last year’s F grade also brought help from the state Department of Education.

An adviser monitored classes several days a week and worked with Capers and her staff.

Capers says the monitor was “mentoring, teaching strategies, going over reading comprehension, things like that; Increased vocabulary, increased the rigor of what they were learning and that was very important.”

A team flew in from Tallahassee every few months to check progress.

A key takeaway? The importance of repeating things for students.

“With the way the curriculum is now it’s moving at such a fast pace and our children need the repetitiveness of continuing to go over the same things over and over. So we took a lot of time reinforcing a lot of things they were already learning. And that makes a big difference.”

State officials say the reason grades dropped this year is clear: Tougher standards.

“Florida is raising education standards because we know from past experience that students and teachers consistently rise to occasion when challenged,” Gov. Rick Scott said when grades were released. “This new system will allow us to compare our students with those in other states so that we can benchmark results, measure progress, and adjust curriculum to better prepare students for college and the workforce, so that they are better able to compete in the global marketplace.”

Fred Heid leads school improvement efforts for the Florida Department of Education.

The state was proposing as many as 21 changes to the state grading system, Heid says. That upset school officials and created a panic that school grades would plunge.

The Florida Board of Education stepped in last year and approved a rule that school grades could only drop one letter this year as schools learn about the new grading system. That circuit breaker disappears next year.

But Heid says school grades ended up being better than early estimates suggested.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

The small charter school is located near I-275 and downtown Tampa.

“There were so many different simulations that were run; if-then scenarios that ‘If this change were indeed verified and approved by the state Board of Education, this could be the outcome,’” Heid says.

“I think that a lot of that initial data caused a great deal of concern in that Florida would have this tremendous overrepresentation of F schools…luckily that’s not what happened.”

But there’s no common reasons for why schools improved.

Heid credits programs such as Just Read, Florida! The statewide program provides resources to students, teachers and schools and has created a thorough network of experts.

“If a district calls and says ‘Hey we need help with this,’” Heid says, Just Read, Florida! will send staff to do professional development and make sure it meets the different level of needs for students.

Collier County superintendent Kamela Patton created a council of district principals and district staff. The panel met to analyze data and share successful ideas.

Patton told the Naples News that the idea had never been used before. The council helped Collier County increase its number of A-rated schools while maintaining no F-rated schools.

Heid says every school must find their own weakness

“You’re dealing with a different student population every single year and their needs vary, and so the school has to be in a position to remain flexible,” Heid says.

One way to do that is regular assessments of what students learned.

Mount Pleasant checks its students every other week.

“Therefore I know exactly if they’re learning, if they’re not learning, where they need the extra help,” she says. “And we do that every two weeks throughout the entire year…If we see that they’re not learning or the majority did not then we know where to go back and teach it.”

Capers says those progress reports are how she expects Mount Pleasant Middle to maintain the A grade next year.


  • LH Chapman

    I find this report alarming  and sad. The exclusive focus seems to be passing FCAT, a test that is not supported by any studies of its validity in preparing students for college or a career, and even less for life beyond taking tests of academic knowledge.  The repeat, repeat, repeat style of teaching is certain to kill interest in learning of the kind that will sustain these youngsters through high school and college. The additional resources being invested in preparing everyone for these tests, plus the huge investments of time for interim tests and analysing data, is common when you want to train kids and teachers to pass the tests, not engage in education.  I know the difficulties of teaching in an environment of poverty and with teachers who may be part of the problem because they have been alllowed to pass through the system. Even so, anyone who thinks the A earned by this school represents high  ”quality” education is mistaken, and the biggest mistakers are the “deciders” in the Florida Department of Education, US Office Education, and a press that is uncritical of the policies that are really dumbing down education in the US.  I am a native Floridian whith decades of teaching experience.

  • Connie Saltonstall

    I agree that repetition is helpful and assesssing when mastery is achieved prevents boredom. 

    I think the first advantage this school had is the small number of students. That allows more individual attention for each student.

    I believe that one of the best benefits of our Y-Reads program is the individual attention the students receive. The lessons are important, but I think the caring relationships of the tutors
    is invaluable. It is an opportunity for each individual student to be treated with kindness and respect, and it is obvious that they truly appreciate this relationship. This relationship then transfers to a connection with learning and improves their motivation.

    As a volunteer I have no direct experience with the actual tests. As a former teacher I know how important is is to have a firm foundation in the basics. Our present day technological society focuses on television, video games, ipods, and ipads, with the result that students are not building reading, writing, and math skills that they are being tested on outside of the classroom. Our challenge is to give them the basics of an education that will allow them to think and reason for themselves and enable them to use their knowlege and adapt to a constatntly changing world. Programs that provide individual attention that creates successful learning experiences and builds confidence and self respect can exist even if part of that experience is
    meeting the goals of the test.

  • Patiobay2

    It sounds like the extra help programs for children are very beneficial in raising their scores. I volunteer for the after school program Y Reads at the Booker elementary school in Sarasota along with many others and these children have improved their reading skills with the one on one help when children are in a big class room and also do not get helpat home they need extra attention to achieve better scores especially in reading.

  • Kaul Ens

    I think repetition is very important to reinforce learning. It does not have to be boring. Think of familiar refrains like “The wheels of the bus go round and round.” Repetitive, but kids love it because it’s fun. Learning should be fun and Y-Reads volunteers help make learning it’s own reward. Sometimes I say to a student, “I know you know this, but lets run through it again quickly so we’ll have time to play a game.” Not only does this refocus their attention on the lesson, they are also learning to work toward a goal, playing a game.  If assessments keep a child from falling through the cracks, I’m all for it!

  • Patsy

    I agree that we need a baseline of what knowledge each child has when we begin. Testing is necessary to measure what they are learning.

    As a volunteer in the Y Reads program, I want to help the children with the basics of reading and give them a sense of feeling good about themselves and what they can accomplish. Yes, repetition is helpful in teaching the basic skills and it is up to us, as teachers, to find ways to meet the individual needs of these students. I want to make it fun and exciting to learn. It is easier for us as volunteers because we are working one on one with these students. It is rewarding when these children want to share a book they have read with you or read a book to you!

    I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the students at the Booker School in the Y Reads program….great program!

    Patsy Garno

  • Felicelli8

    I agree with repetition and reinforcement.  Over and over again may seem tedious, but it drills it in and it sticks.  The Y Reads Program in Sarasota uses this type of learning and re-learning in the after school tutoring program and it has been very successful

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