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School sees IB program as a savior

Ohanian Comment: This school seems to be suffering from a plethora of strategies: reading coaches and practice testing are mentioned. The International Baccalaureate program is not just one more strategy. It is a belief system. I wonder how the teachers are selected for this sophisticated program.

Here is the subhead:
Educators hope the elite academic plan will turn struggling Wakeland Elementary around.

Is the reporter misunderstanding IB as a "plan" or are the school personnel? I question how a teacher can seesaw from offering test prep one year to offering IB the next. This article gives us a look at desperation; it gives no indication of extensive teacher education. I speak as someone who joined the faculty of a new open school in the early 70ies.

I wish them well.

By Tiffany Lankes

BRADENTON -- It's 7:45 a.m. and already the hallways of Wakeland Elementary School are full of children.

School doesn't start for another hour, but many students are here for free breakfast -- a muffin or toast and a carton of juice.

Nine out of 10 students at the east Bradenton school qualify for free breakfast and lunch because of their family's income. The school also has a high number of students who are homeless, come from broken homes or are members of families that don't speak any English.

"Some of these kids live in chaos," said fifth-grade teacher Kim McAfee.

Against odds like these, it's no wonder the students are struggling in school. Many are years behind before they even enter a classroom.

"We're not just behind the eight ball," said Principal Chuck Fradley. "We're in a completely different game."

After years of trying to turn the school around, administrators think they found a solution to make Wakeland succeed.

Educators say a new program -- part of the International Baccalaureate system -- will get Wakeland's students more interested in school, and in turn help them improve. With the program, teachers shape their lessons around students' questions and children learn to think critically.

They're also hoping the elite program will help attract other students to the half-empty school. Parents throughout Manatee County will be able to send their children to the new program at Wakeland.

On Saturday, Wakeland's staff will have its first chance to promote its efforts during an open house.

The question is, will the new program work?

"I can't show them a picture or a brochure that shows them what this school is going to look like in five years," Fradley said. "It's going to change everything."

In search of strategies

Ever since the state gave Wakeland a failing grade four years ago, teachers have struggled to help their students improve.

The school has tried a number of strategies -- from reading coaches to practice testing -- to help students succeed. Still, they're lagging behind their peers.

At the start of the school year, McAfee did an informal analysis of her students' academic performance. About half of the 23 students had been held back at least once. Two were supposed to be in the seventh grade.

Nearly all of her students were below average on last year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"It's not that they don't . . don't have the ability," she said. "They're very capable; they just don't have the same advantages of other kids."

Those statistics hold true for the rest of the school. Last year about 60 percent of the students weren't reading at a level appropriate for their age. About 70 percent weren't performing at grade level in math.

When the school failed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind standards for the fourth time last year, the school district stepped in and decided something needed to change.

The district picked Fradley, one of its most popular administrators, to take over as principal and launch the program. The School Board eliminated Wakeland's attendance boundaries to make room for other students in the county who want to attend the new program there.

The plan originally faced some criticism from people in the community who saw it as a way to push out Wakeland's struggling students. But administrators at the school vow to give all the school's students a chance. So far, three out of four Wakeland students have signed up to stay next year.

It will be another five years before the research-based program is fully in place, but teachers are already working on completing their training and using the new techniques.

And already students are noticing a difference.

In Karen Cobb's third-grade classroom, students work in small groups on projects about the environment. They come up with their own questions, and they figure out themselves how to find the answers.

"We get to do things that we don't always get to do at school," said Cesar Guerrero, 8. "It can be kind of challenging, but it's fun."

One morning this week McAfee taught her students about asking questions and how to think critically about the world.

Her students read stories in groups and then came up with questions she will use to plan her future lessons.

"In order to learn we have to think about what we know and where we've been," McAfee tells her class. "We have to reflect on things before we can move forward."


— Tiffany Lankes
Herald Tribune (Southwest Florida)


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