Failing Dade schools face closing
SANFORD - The state's lowest-performing schools -- including five in South Florida -- must be dramatically restructured, converted to charter schools, taken over by private managers or shut down this year, according to a rule approved Tuesday by the Board of Education.
Another new rule could force hundreds of middle schoolers to repeat eighth grade next year if their neighborhood high schools do not improve -- a move that could practically eliminate the freshman class at places such as Miami Edison and Miami Central while stuffing the nearby middle schools.
The two policy changes were the latest major moves by the state to deal with persistently failing schools.
''This is the highest mountain we're trying to climb,'' K-12 Chancellor Jim Warford said at the board's meeting in Sanford.
The five South Florida schools -- Central and Edison senior highs and Holmes Elementary in Miami-Dade County, and Arthur Ashe Middle and Lauderdale Manors Elementary in Broward County -- have four options:
Restructure their entire operation by replacing ''all or most of the school staff relevant to the failure'' and overhauling the curriculum.
Convert to a charter school, managed by a nonprofit group instead of the School Board.
Hire a private management company to oversee operations for the district.
School districts must decide by July 19, and the state board must approve their plans.
Both counties' superintendents said they would almost certainly opt for restructuring, but Miami-Dade chief Rudy Crew said his plans could be drastic enough to temporarily shutter the three schools.
''All along, we've been of the mind that something drastic needs to be done,'' said Crew spokesman Joseph Garcia. ``Closing them down perhaps temporarily to reopen in a restructured form is a possibility.''
State board Vice Chairman T. Willard Fair of Miami spoke at length about the need for drastic action, especially at Edison and Orange County's Jones High School -- both of which have received four consecutive F's and are heavily populated by Haitian immigrants.
''If we don't do something, people are going to think about Haitians what they thought about black people years ago -- that they're dumb,'' said Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.
Edison has become a celebrated cause among Haitians in Miami-Dade, and activists have warned against any move to close it.
''We will call the parents, students, community leaders and educators to form an army of activists to defeat that sinister plan that had been in the making for years,'' said Jean-Ren้ Foureau, president of the Haitian Refugee Center.
`FIX THE PROBLEM'
Regarding the new eighth-grade retention policy, Garcia said the Miami-Dade district expects to improve the struggling schools before it takes effect in the 2006-07 school year.
''We're going to fix the problem rather than worry about how we would manage the penalty,'' he said.
But years of attempts have done nothing to lift school grades at Edison, and the retention policy could have a dramatic impact on some of Miami's poorest neighborhoods.
The plan would only apply to middle schools that feed underperforming senior highs -- those that receive consecutive F grades and earn fewer points under the state's grading formula than the prior year.
Eighth-graders at the feeder schools who score at the lowest two levels of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading exam would not be promoted to high school.
According to the spring FCAT results, 87 percent of the eighth-graders at Edison Middle and 79 percent at Horace Mann Middle -- both of which feed Edison Senior High -- scored in either levels 1 or 2 on the FCAT reading exam. The highest level is 5.
At Madison Middle, which feeds Central Senior High, 87 percent scored in the two lowest levels.
The state has not released the results at Westview, Central's other feeder school, pending an investigation of alleged cheating on the FCAT.
The retention rule was proposed by Board of Education Chairman Philip Handy of Tallahassee.
''Dear God, make them read before they get there,'' Handy said.
UP TO DISTRICTS
There was little discussion about implementing the new rule, and the board effectively left it to individual school districts to determine how to deal with the overcrowding it could create in middle schools.
Fair said he ''could care less'' whether Crew and local school board members agreed with the rule, and Handy warned them not to ``force us to take other action.''
Education Commissioner John Winn said that tough new standard would press struggling middle schools to improve quickly.
''It'll send a message that something extraordinary needs to happen in the middle schools,'' he said.
Herald staff writer Steve Harrison contributed to this report.
Matthew I. Pinzur
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