'We're trying to turn the school around'
Ohanian Comment: This plan is sure to create a positive attitude toward school in middle schoolers: track them rigorously--based on FCAT scores, make weak students take nothing but FCAT prep classes, give all students pseudo-FCAT tests every nine weeks.
By Aetna Smith
This summer, Principal Reginald Griffin of Belle Vue Middle School analyzed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results and noticed a disturbing trend: Among some high-scoring students, he could see FCAT scores dropping over time.
The school didn't meet certain federal standards, which triggered some parents to exercise their school choice and take their kids out of Belle Vue. And a declining student population means less money from the state.
So the new principal, who last year was an assistant principal of curriculum at Chiles High, decided that he and the faculty should create an accelerated program for the high-end FCAT scorers. And for the lower-performing students, they developed intensive programs for reading and math.
"We're trying to turn the school around with programs that show that we care and want to do a good job for our students," he said.
Failing to improve the FCAT scores has very real consequences, such as losing students to schools that meet federal standards. Having fewer students at a school means losing the state-generated amount of money per student, said Jon Cramer, executive director of planning and policy with Leon County Schools.
For the third year in a row, Belle Vue did not meet the Adequate Yearly Progress standard, a component of the federal No Child Left Behind program. (Nims is the only other Leon County middle school that didn't meet it.)
The Adequate Yearly Progress report uses the FCAT scores to grade schools on how well students who have certain ethnic backgrounds, economic disadvantages, limited English proficiency or disabilities perform in math, reading and other subjects. If any one subgroup doesn't meet its goal, the entire school fails to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress standard.
Belle Vue is a Title 1 school, which means a large percentage of its students come from low-income families. Students in Title 1 schools who don't make adequate progress for two consecutive years can transfer to higher-performing public schools in the district. This year, Belle Vue lost 34 students; last year, it lost 35.
"There's been a lot of (student) flight," Griffin said. "So there's a need for the school to work harder to improve the curriculum and help the kids develop mentally and socially."
Cramer notes that while a school might lose some state money, the school district assists school-improvement plans.
For example, Griffin said, he has instituted a mandatory first-period reading class that teams the weakest readers with the strongest teachers. Some low-end FCAT scorers in reading take reading classes three times a day, he said. And there are mandatory intensive math courses for students scoring in the lowest levels.
Every nine weeks, students will take diagnostic exams in reading and math that mimic the FCATs. The tests will help teachers find out how well students are doing and give them more practice at taking tests, he said.
Then there's a new program, called Accelerated Curriculum Enrichment, that will specifically address the needs of what Griffin calls his "top notch" students.
"We want to propel our brightest so they can be prepared for the rigorous work they'll see in high school," he said last week at an orientation program for students and parents.
Students scoring at Level 3, 4 or 5 in reading and/or math in the FCATs and those recommended by teachers were selected for the accelerated team of about 130, he said.
"Before, the classes were a heterogeneous mix, and we had a small percentage of the 3-, 4- and 5-level scorers," he said. "So if 60 percent of a class was a Level 1, and there were a few Level 5s, those kids would never get pushed."
The accelerated students are placed together and taught at above-grade level in math, science, social studies and English. Griffin hopes the advanced classes will be a "great way to attract and retain students."
During the evening orientation for the program, Fatima Tejada, the older sister of 12-year-old Tania, said the family was proud of Tania's school achievements. When Tania learned of her acceptance, she said, "I was all excited."
Bonnie Floyd, whose son Joshua is an eighth-grader, said it's good to push children past their academic comfort zones.
"Otherwise," she said, "they'll be sitting on the couch playing Xbox (video games) all day."
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