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Putting Education Reform To The Test

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The Anemic State of High School Physics in Florida

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Robin Sussingham

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Physics is the most  fundamental of sciences; it’s an essential stepping stone for  careers in engineering or science. But around the country, fewer than 40 percent of high school students take a physics class. In Florida , that number is much lower — only about a quarter of high school students take physics. Experts say that the trend affects the future earning potential of the state’s students.

Alan Kramer is a fifth year graduate student in physics at the University of South Florida. He’s working in his Tampa lab, which is noisy with the sound of a cryo pump.

“It’s an air conditioner,” he explains, “but instead of using refrigerant, we use helium so we can get the contents of this ultra high vacuum chamber down to around 10 Kelvin or so, which is close to the limit of being cold.”

He’s studying what happens at the atomic level on the surface of solid materials. Besides his research, he teaches undergraduates, and says “what they gain by coming out of a physics class is thinking rationally.”


Kramer says he’s very aware of the importance of a high school physics education, because he once taught it. He taught high school physics in New Jersey, but in Florida, could only find openings for teachers for introductory classes in general science.

Instead, he taught high-level math classes briefly in Sarasota County. When he lost his job in a round of teacher layoffs, he says, he took the opportunity to get his doctorate.

High school physics classes in Sarasota County are hard to come by.  According to data collected by Florida State University Physics Professor Paul Cottle, only about 20 percent of students in that county take the class.

In the state overall, that number is about 25 percent.  And Cottle says, in comparison with the rest of the country, “that’s a third fewer students that have the door opened to the kind of opportunity in physics and engineering careers.”

But even these low physics enrollment numbers don’t illustrate the real extent of the problem, because only a fraction of the existing physics classes are being taught by a qualified teacher.

Cottle says Florida does fine in other STEM classes, like math or chemistry.

“It’s physics which is the science course where we really seem to have gotten stuck,” he said. “It’s a course where you really need a teacher that understands a difficult subject and we have difficulty getting teachers.”

Cottle is active in the effort to get more Florida high school students into physics classes, and he keeps track of how many students are taking physics in all of the state’s 67 school districts.

“There are a lot of rural districts that aren’t offering physics at all,” he says. “You can kind of understand that…These are small districts and have had trouble justifying a physics teacher … But then you see counties that are good size,  and you have to wonder that they’re thinking.”

Counties like Citrus, Pasco and Osceola have only around 5 to 10 percent enrollment. He says the education gatekeepers just don’t get it.

“Administrators and principals and parents don’t really understand how important courses like physics are to the future of their students,” he said.

Important, Cottle says, for social mobility, because physics is also required for the lucrative engineering or science careers that have historically provided a way out of poverty.

If students want to take that path, they’ll need college physics.

“About a quarter of the engineering majors who arrive at Florida State (University) have not taken a physics course in high school,” Cottle said. “That’s a real problem for them. That leaves them way behind.”

Cottle says it will continue to be difficult to recruit good high school physics teachers as long as the pay is so much lower than what they can make outside of education.

And as former physics teacher and current grad student Alan Kramer says, ”I don’t think teachers are valued.”

Kramer says he’ll continue to try to educate high school students through outreach programs, but his future is now in research.

Parents Fight For School Recess

rally for recess

Robin Sussingham

Remember recess? When you knew that if you just sat still for a couple more hours, you and your friends could go racing out to the merry-go-round or the hopscotch court for a daily dose of fun? In many public elementary schools in Florida, recess has become a thing of the past. And parents are not happy.

Five year old Garrett Hoskins goes to Highlands Grove Elementary school in Lakeland. He’s in kindergarten, and he loves recess. He’s kind of an authority on the slides.

“The slide I like is the bumpy one,” Garrett says. “I like the circle one because that one has sides. The other one doesn’t really have sides. Just short sides, to keep you safe.”

Garrettt goes to recess once a week, on Fridays, for 20 minutes. His mom, Stephanie Hoskins, says that’s not enough.

“Not for bustling five year olds, no,” she says.

They were at a community meeting recently, organized by Polk County school Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy. LeRoy  was responding to a growing and increasingly vocal demand by parents to give kids a break during the school day.

At the meeting, the frustration was palpable. Parents were supposed to ask questions by writing them down on a card and turning it in — but one mom, sitting in the audience, couldn’t contain herself. She said her eight-year-old son hates to go to school.  “He loves being outdoors and he gets no time,” she said. “He has to sit in a classroom from 8:30 until 3 o’clock. He goes to lunch and they’re not allowed to  talk at that time either.”

It probably came as no surprise to these parents when LeRoy presented the research showing the recess is important to kids in lots of ways, physically, socially and cognitively. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess crucial to child development.

Superintendent LeRoy told the crowd that she’s all in favor of recess. She said she was forming a county-wide committee to come up with recommendations, and she’d take them to the school board for a vote. But, she said, it’s not as easy as it once was to send the children out onto the playground.

Pointing to the wording of a state education statute that she’d projected up on a screen, LeRoy said, “The reason I am showing this to you is because I want you to get a sense of the magnitude and mandates that are laying on top of us….We are required to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art and music (those are electives), and physical education.”

There’s also a requirement of 90 minutes every day for reading instruction — and more for low performing schools.

The state has made no policies regarding recess, leaving it up to the individual school districts. Some districts have no recess in schools. Others, like Miami Dade, require it for Pre-K through 5th grade. Miami-Dade even has a recess manual, that describes how to teach Double Dutch and hop scotch!

Time for recess has been squeezed out in recent years, but now social media is helping parents, such as Lakeland mother Amanda Lipham, organize recess supporters.
Lipham says she organized the push for recess in Polk when she saw changes in her five year old son.

“He was losing his enthusiasm for school,” Lipham says. “His attitude was changing. I could see his spirit being broken.”

First, Lipham handed out flyers in the car line at her son’s elementary school, and she spoke out at a school board meeting. Then, she formed an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures.

Now parents are creating similar online petitions around the state. More than 2200 people have signed a petition to make recess mandatory in Pinellas County, This fall, Parents in Osceola County also started a petition demanding recess. And a similar effort in Orange County last year led to a school board resolution recommending that schools provide the breaks.

And that’s the way change might happen, says Judy Stockman, who teaches at Sykes Elementary school in Lakeland — when parents get involved.

“Teachers have already voiced their opinions about this and nothing happened,” Stockman says.

The state does require every school to provide PE for 150 minutes a week. But Stockman, like the Superintendent and the parents at the meeting, say that’s not the same as recess.

“PE doesn’t count,” Stockman says. “That is structured. What I’m seeing lacking is time for social skills and social development. and that type of thing. Just to go and explore on your own.”

LeRoy said some school districts, like Orange county, have adopted Resolutions in favor of recess. But LeRoy said she wanted a policy for schools to follow.

The Polk County school board will take up the committee recommendations on recess at its Dec. 8th meeting.

Despite Losing Grant, Choral Group Still Teaching Miami Students To Sing

Natural Bridge Elementary School students sing "Amazing Grace."

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Natural Bridge Elementary School students sing "Amazing Grace."

As soon as the fourth and fifth graders at Natural Bridge Elementary were handed the lyrics to Amazing Grace, they were ready to sing out.

But first, they needed a lesson in the four voice types of a choir – bass, tenor, alto and soprano.

One by one members of the group added their part while the students waited to sing the melody. Finally, it was time to add soprano Sara Guttenberg

“I really hope she sings the melody,” tenor Patrick Muehleise kids.

The students are ready. They join in before the conductor gives them their cue.

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International Baccalaureate Programs Finding A Home In Florida Middle and Elementary Schools

It’s game day in the 8th grade International Baccalaureate design class at Ada Merritt K-8 Center in Little Havana in Miami.

The games the students are playing are designed by their classmates. And they’re based on books the students read for class.

Four eighth graders prepare to set off on a board game based on the book “Everlost” – set in a fantasy world between life and death inhabited by “afterlights.”

Ada Merritt K-8 Center 8th graders Theo Urquiza and Victoria Fernandez play a role-playing game based on the book "Everlost" that their classmates created.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Ada Merritt K-8 Center 8th graders Theo Urquiza and Victoria Fernandez play a role-playing game based on the book "Everlost" that their classmates created.

Theo Urquiza reads the rules and introduces the characters.

“Every player must choose one character,” Urquiza reads, “and once you have chosen a character go to the table of contents to see what page your player is on.”

“So, who’s Allie?” he asks.

“Ok, Allie,” he continues, and reads the character description. “Although Allie is dead, she’s not really dead. She got stuck in between life and death in a world called Everlost.”

Students were asked to create a role-playing game – where players live in the heads of the characters they’re playing with.

In this game, the players face a series of scenarios as the move along the board. They make a choice, and the outcome is decided by a roll of the dice.

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Tampa Academy Introduces Students To Maritime Careers

Maritime Academy Director John Paradis (c) on the Port tour

Robin Sussingham / WUSF

Maritime Academy Director John Paradis (c) on the Port tour

 

Florida is a state that juts out into the water and is home to 14 ports — but still the maritime industry is a mystery to most teens. Now, a rapidly aging workforce in one of the state’s major economic engines is behind a push to reach a younger generation and teach them about sea-going jobs.

In Tampa Bay, maritime interests have teamed up with the Hillsborough School district to create the Maritime Honors Academy at Jefferson High School In Tampa. On a recent morning, 31 students from the the Academy’s freshman class took a tour of the Tampa port. They were welcomed by Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson, who told them “this program is a great way for you to learn about an industry that’s global, and has a great future for many of you, hopefully.

“There’s a lot of people here that, when you graduate, we won’t be working here any more,” Anderson said. “We’re going to be retired.”

And that, he told the students, means job opportunities for you.

Fourteen year old Alexia Hegedus says she’s interested in those jobs. She says she found out something in the program that amazed her. “Ninety-five percent of the world’s goods are traded through ships,” she says.  “It’s a very interesting subject, and I’ve always loved the ocean.”

Our conversation is interrupted when the tour guide points out dolphins, and the students rush to look over the side of the boat.

The dolphins get a bigger response than anything else on the port tour, which I mention to the Maritime program director, John Paradis.

“Eighty percent of [Academy freshmen] want to come in and pet a dolphin,” Paradis says. “The market is flooded with marine biologists, and the pay scale is not as high as it is on the maritime industry side.”

Paradis says that when their eyes are opened to the larger world of shipping, they leave the dolphins behind. The upperclassmen say they want to be naval architects, or ship captains. One junior says her goal is Paul Anderson’s job — CEO of Port Tampa Bay.

As the boat passes through the Ybor Channel, the tour guide points out International Ship Repair, whose President, Dave Sessums, was the driving force behind this Maritime Academy. Sessums is a member of the Tampa port’s Propeller Club, a group that promotes shipping and maritime interests. Working on the Propeller Club’s outreach and education committee, he partnered with the Hillsborough School District to create the program. Sessums says he started out in the shipping industry at age 12, and nearly six decades later, says he feels compelled to draw new blood into the industry.

“You can’t just walk away and let it wither on the vine,” he says.

Sessums says when they created the program eight years ago, they wanted a broader focus of study than they saw at established schools in Florida, such as MAST academy in Key Biscayne, which focuses more on the yachting industry and marine science. With 16 fields of study, they introduce students to the array of possibilities of maritime work

“Those jobs are everything from a welder to a naval architect,” he says. “From a terminal operator to a tugboat captain. There are a lot of careers that most people don’t know about. And we’re getting old.”

Now Propeller clubs in Broward and Brevard county are working with school districts to set up similar maritime programs there.  Last May, the first students graduated from Hillsborough’s other maritime program, at Blake High School. Out of nine graduates, three went to merchant marine academies, and two more work at shipyard trades.

Sessums says he heard a speaker recently — Congressman Elijah Cummings — who summed it up:

“It they can’t see it, they can’t dream it. But once they see it, they start to dream it.”

And that’s the magic of it, Sessums says. For the Maritime Academy freshmen on the boat tour, the hope is that seeing will lead to dreaming.

Why President Obama’s Call For Less Testing Might Not Change Much

President Barack Obama recently said he thinks there should be less testing in schools. He admits his administration is partly to blame for the problem.

Pool / Getty News Images

President Barack Obama recently said he thinks there should be less testing in schools. He admits his administration is partly to blame for the problem.

Recently, President Barack Obama admitted he’d made a mistake when it comes to public schools.

Like most people with big news to share – he posted it on Facebook.

“I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing,” Obama said in a video posted to the White House’s Facebook page.

For more than a decade, the federal government has required schools to test students every year and use those results to force changes in schools.  And since the late 1990s Florida has used tests the same way.

The president now says he wants less testing in schools.

To be clear, President Obama says he’s worried schools are “obsessing” about testing.

But he’s not isn’t saying that public schools should get rid of the Florida Standards Assessments and other annual exams.

“Our kids should only take tests that are worth taking,” Obama said in the video. “Tests that are high-quality, aimed at good instruction and make sure everybody’s on track.”

The president is asking school districts to limit testing to two percent of class time – but that’s still 26 hours out of the typical school year.

The reason Obama and Florida lawmakers are so focused on testing is parents like Kim Werner from Miami. She’s worried her daughter — who gets good grades — still may not graduate.

Cause she’s got to get a test score to get a high school standard diploma,” Werner said.

Werner was one of dozens of parents at a State Board of Education meeting in Orlando last week pleading for changes to the state’s testing system.

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Florida Schools Struggle To Find Enough Bilingual Teachers

Royal Palm Elementary School Alexandra Martin has two teaching certifications. She says creating bilingual lessons is twice the work.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Royal Palm Elementary School Alexandra Martin has two teaching certifications. She says creating bilingual lessons is twice the work.

Most of the students at Royal Palm Elementary in Miami have Spanish-speaking families.

But those families also want their kids to speak – and read and write – more Spanish in school.

So teacher Alexandra Martin is leading her 1st grade class through “Vamos Papa,” with each child reading a passage from the Spanish language story. Martin helps students through proper pronunciation and words they stumble on.

This is the Miami-Dade public schools’ extended foreign language program, or EFL

Students have 5 hours a week of classes taught in Spanish with additional lessons in English. That’s not just reading and writing, but also math and science.

Spanish is part of everyday life in Miami that’s different from the rest of the country. But Miami-Dade is struggling to find enough teachers qualified in both English and Spanish.

“We had more applicants than we could service so we had to hold a raffle,” said Marta Garcia, principal of Royal Palm Elementary School, near Florida International University. Three students applied for each slot in Royal Palm’s EFL program.

“Parents have realized that it really makes a difference in their child’s education,” Garcia said. “To truly be biliterate and bilingual, it is a big advantage.”

 

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Deciphering Dueling Stats on Graduation Rates

Graduation rates something something...

kthypryn / Flickr

Experts say it should be simple to calculate graduation rates. But it's not.

It sounded like a story guaranteed to irritate taxpayers: a national study out of Rutgers university says more and more public high school students are taking longer than four years to graduate.

Instead, they’re in school for five or six — or more –  years!

But Florida school officials say that’s not a problem here. And experts say, they both may be right — the difference may lie in some good news from the last several years.

Graduation rates are an important number because it lets us know how our high school students are doing, in terms of being ready to go to college or go into the workforce.

The Rutgers researchers say the U.S. Census data that they used is a more accurate way to measure graduation rate as it follows individuals through their lives.

They found a decline in on-time graduation through generations of high schoolers born in the 1940s to the 1980s, especially in boys and minority students.There was a definite growing trend for students to graduate well after they turned 18.

But education officials in Florida said, that’s not what’s happening here.

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Veteran Florida Teachers Wonder If New Bonuses Are Meant For Them

Teacher think lawmakers might have ulterior motives when they created a $44 million bonus program.

401(k) 2012 / Flickr

Teacher think lawmakers might have ulterior motives when they created a $44 million bonus program.

“Who are these bonuses for?”

It’s a question we heard from teachers over and over again while reporting on the new Best and Brightest Scholarships. They’re not actually scholarships — they’re bonuses worth up to $10,000 for teachers who scored in the top 20 percent of students when they took the SAT or ACT and earned the state’s top rating, “highly effective.”

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen proposed the $44 million program during the legislative session. He’s said he was inspired by Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids In the World.” In the book, Ripley found top students wanted to become teachers in Finland, South Korea and other top-performing nations. That isn’t always the case in the U.S.

Fresen’s bill went nowhere, but he managed to get the money added to the state budget despite objections from the Senate.

For many teachers, qualifying for the bonus meant tracking down decades-old test scores from the two testing companies or from the college they attended. Many teachers said they couldn’t get the records before the October 1st deadline.

It’s why many veteran teachers don’t think they bonuses were meant for them. They think they were intended for young teachers. More recent graduates can get their test scores online and first-year teachers are exempt from the “highly effective” requirement.

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New Florida Teacher Bonus Program Draws Complaints

Miami teacher Brigette Kinney qualifies for a new state bonus program,  but disagrees with the concept.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Miami teacher Brigette Kinney qualifies for a new state bonus program, but disagrees with the concept.

In Brigette Kinney’s design class at Ada Merritt K-8 center in Miami, one of the key concepts is editing and revising ideas after getting feedback.

Her 8th graders created role-playing games based on books they read. And then adjust the games, after watching their classmates play.

Kinney hopes Florida lawmakers will be as open to change as her students.

“I feel that legislators are out of touch with what it means to be a good teacher,” she said.

Kinney was talking about the new program called the “Best and Brightest Scholarships.” It’s not not actually a scholarship. It’s bonuses for teachers based on how they did on the SATs and ACTs. And they could get as much as ten thousand dollars.

To get the money, teachers need to have scored in the top twenty percent when they took the college placement exams. They also have to earn the state’s top teacher rating – “highly effective.”

Lawmakers in Tallahassee earmarked $44 million in the state budget for the bonuses.

But to get them, many teachers have to track down scores they may not have seen since high school.

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