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.


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