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School cuts students; grade goes up


Orange's Oak Ridge High dropped 126 pupils shortly before FCATs last year.

Posted March 5, 2004

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Oak Ridge High School in Orlando boosted its school grade from an F to a D last year after purging its attendance roll of dozens of low-performing and often-absent students in the weeks leading up to the FCAT.

School records show 126 students dropped from the roll in January 2003, the month before testing started -- about 5 percent of Oak Ridge's student body and twice as many students dropped by any other Orange County high school that month.

Dozens of students appear to have been cut from school without their parents' permission, a violation of state law if the teens were younger than 18. What happened to many of those students, and whether they ever returned to school, is uncertain.

Principal Brenda Wells denies that the dismissals had anything to do with trying to improve test scores or the school's grade. She said it was coincidental that so many students were withdrawn before FCATs.

School Board attorney Frank Kruppenbacher, who said he had not heard about the withdrawals until Thursday, promised to launch an audit of the records immediately.

Jan Pratt, an associate superintendent over Oak Ridge since January, said she would look into the number of students removed from school, as well as whether any withdrawals were done without parents' consent.

"There's no doubt, 126 kids in one month does seem like a lot," Pratt said.

School Board member Kat Gordon, whose district includes Oak Ridge, said this week that she was unhappy with the situation. She said she contacted district officials months ago after hearing complaints about mass withdrawals from parents and teachers.

"I still get complaints from teachers," Gordon said. "I'm not going to be happy until we can come together with some kind of happy medium on this."

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is the most important series of exams students in grades three to 10 take each year. Now under way in schools across the state, the FCAT determines the letter grade given to a school each year. For some principals, the results can make or break a career.

Oak Ridge, with its many poor and minority students, had slipped from a C to an F in the years before Wells was brought on board to turn things around.

About three-quarters of the students removed last year had at least one F in their classes, according to records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel. About 80 percent were ninth- or 10th-graders -- a key group because Florida counts only the scores of freshmen and sophomores for school grades.

Most of the students routinely missed classes -- a sore spot for the school after it got slapped with an F rating in 2002 because only 89 percent of the student body showed up for FCAT testing instead of the required 90 percent.

What happened to the students who were dropped from school is difficult to determine, in part because the school district keeps their names confidential. Names were blacked out on the records examined by the newspaper.

Of the 76 students withdrawn from Oak Ridge in January 2003 for poor attendance -- the largest group among the 126 who were dropped from the roll -- more than half returned to Oak Ridge or enrolled in another school. Some came back to Oak Ridge in a matter of weeks.

State law requires a parent's permission to remove a minor child from school. Maritza Morrobel of Orlando said no one from the school contacted her when they withdrew her son, Wilfredo Morrobel, from Oak Ridge on Jan. 31, 2003. At the time, he was a 16-year-old freshman who missed school frequently.

She said she had gone to the school to inquire about an alternative-education program that might better suit her son. She remembers an Oak Ridge coach telling her he would call her back with information about the program but no one ever did.

"I don't know what happened," Morrobel said. "They never called."

A year later, Wilfredo has started attending Mid-Florida Technical School to get his high-school-equivalency degree and take drafting classes.

Jonathan Kornexl was withdrawn because of poor attendance in December 2002. He went to work at Cecil's Barbecue but is now recuperating from an ankle injury.

"As soon as I got to Oak Ridge, I just stopped going," said Kornexl, who hopes to get his high-school-equivalency degree and study advanced automotive technology at a technical school. "I just stopped going. I never officially withdrew."

Wells said the mass dismissal of students in January 2003 followed months of trying to boost the attendance of problem students and counseling ninth-graders who might benefit by transferring to vocational schools. The school registrar, who supervises enrollment, was gone most of the month, so the school's staff had to fill in, Wells said.

Those factors all led to the high January withdrawals, she said.

In some cases when parents did not sign forms, students were simply transferring to another school, so they obviously had parents' permission, Wells said. In the cases of absentee students, letters from the school and calls to the parents did not always succeed. By her count, the school was unable to get parents' permission to drop about 17 students because of poor attendance.

"Seventeen out of 2,400 kids, I think that's pretty good," Wells said.

The principal said she had to drop absentee students from the school roster. To keep them on the attendance rolls would be improperly counting them as full-time students and unlawfully accepting state money for their education.

"You're darned if you do and darned if you don't," said Wells, who started as principal of Oak Ridge in 2002. "We did not want it to look like we were trying to get money for kids who were not here."

The biggest batch of withdrawals occurred Jan. 31, 2003, when at least 27 students were dropped from the rolls. That was on a Friday, the last school day before Oak Ridge started a state-mandated student head count that would be key in determining how many students needed to take the FCAT in order for the school to avoid getting another automatic F because of bad attendance on test days.

At least 15 students were withdrawn that Friday without parents' permission, paperwork examined by the Sentinel shows. In one case, an administrator signed on the line reserved for parents.

Eight of the students who were dropped without their parents' written OK were ninth-graders. Wells said the eight probably were 18-year-old ninth-graders, not needing permission. Their ages could not be determined because clerks who prepared the records for the newspaper blacked out dates of birth on withdrawal forms, saying it might identify the students.

After the newspaper asked to see the records in December, withdrawals at Oak Ridge this January fell by half. Even so, Oak Ridge still dropped more students in the weeks before testing and the critical head count than any other high school in Orange County.

Wells said the Oak Ridge withdrawals are not excessive considering attendance is among the worst in the county. Almost one in four students at the 2,400-pupil campus missed more than four weeks of school last year, state records show.

"I don't know if other schools aren't following the procedures for nonattendance," she said.

Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Frances Marine said the state depends on school districts to track any spikes or dips in enrollment before the February head count. The state primarily focuses on attendance changes between the head count and the beginning of testing in mid-February, she said.

She said the department was not aware of the Oak Ridge situation and knew of no cases in the state where attendance had been manipulated to affect the FCAT.

But the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, affiliated with Boston College, reported in January that the easiest way for schools to increase test scores is to exclude low-performing students from being tested.

Orlando's Jones High has an even higher absentee rate than Oak Ridge. Principal Lorenzo Phillips said he's reluctant to withdraw truant students before testing or anytime. Jones dropped only five students the same month Oak Ridge withdrew 126.

"I want kids because I need the money," said Phillips, who like Wells was tapped to improve an F-rated school.

Leslie Postal of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Mary Shanklin can be reached at mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538.

Copyright 2004, Orlando Sentinel |

— By Mary Shanklin


2004-03-05

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orange/orl-asecoakridge05030504mar05%2C0%2C5859270.story?coll=orl-home-headlines

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