U.S.: Forty Percent Can Switch from Failing Dade Schools
Around 140,000 Miami-Dade County students -- nearly 40 percent of the student body -- will be eligible to change schools next year because their neighborhood school failed to meet federal standards under the No Child Left Behind law, according to data unveiled Tuesday.
That staggering information was released alongside the state's annual school grades, with Miami-Dade getting mixed results. More schools received F's this year -- 12, up from eight in 2003 -- and more students were enrolled in F-graded schools, too -- around 14,000, up from around 12,000 last year.
The dozen F schools included two senior highs that remain mired in failure and two elementaries that now will also face state sanctions.
But district leaders found good news in the broader trends. Countywide, 62 schools improved at least one letter grade while 58 declined, and 13 percent more schools received A's. State Education Commissioner Jim Horne specifically pointed to Miami Shores Elementary, which was one of 11 schools to improve two letter grades.
''There's a lot more good news than bad,'' said Superintendent Merrett Stierheim. ``It's really heartwarming to see this district continue to raise the bar.''
His administration was relieved that two of the county's four failing senior highs -- Booker T. Washington and Northwestern -- raised their grades to D's. Three other schools that drew F's in 2003 also improved this year: Laura C. Saunders Elementary rose to a C, and North County Charter Elementary and Rosa Parks Community School in Florida City both earned D's.
The passing grade at Northwestern capped a year of achievement for the school, which was also home to the district's Teacher of the Year, Demeka Breedlove-Mays.
''I don't want to say that a D is a reflection of our efforts, but we always work hard at Northwestern,'' said Breedlove-Mays, who opposes the school-grade system because she said it only measures part of a school's success. ``I still believe we are an A school for the efforts put forth by students and teachers every day.''
Edison and Jackson senior highs both received a third consecutive F, while Holmes and West Little River elementaries received a second F in a four-year period, making students at those four schools eligible to transfer to better-performing public schools or request taxpayer-funded vouchers at attend private schools.
Eight other schools were handed their first F this year, including an unprecedented four middle schools: Allapattah, Charles Drew, Madison and Edison. The other three went to Central Senior High, Downtown Miami and Vankara Academy charter schools and the School for Applied Technology, a specialized high school.
Despite their continued struggles, Edison and Jackson high schools both showed incremental improvement.
'I want to say to Miami Edison: `You are so close,' '' said Jim Warford, state chancellor of K-12 education. ``If you make half the gains next year you made this year, you will be there.''
The state grades and the federal No Child Left Behind measures are independent systems that examine schools differently, but both come from student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Warford and other state leaders cautioned local districts not to panic over the prospect of mass transfers under No Child Left Behind.
Students at 139 Miami-Dade schools can choose transfers this fall because their neighborhood school meets two criteria: enough poverty to receive federal Title I funding and two consecutive years of failing to meet federal testing standards for every racial and ethnic group.
''Most parents are satisfied with the choices they already have,'' said Chief Education Officer Mercedes Toural, citing the district's extensive magnet program and dozens of charter schools.
Those students are not eligible for private-school vouchers, reserved for schools that receive F grades from the state twice in any four-year period. Registration for both types of transfers will run from June 21 to July 1.
In addition to offering vouchers, the so-called ''double-F'' schools will face a bevy of new sanctions approved Monday by the Florida Board of Education.
All of the teachers at those schools will need to be certified in the subjects they teach and have a track record of improving student performance. Local school boards could suspend union contracts if they need to offer pay incentives or forcibly transfer teachers to reach that goal.
''The districts will honor this sanction because it will free them of local agreements that sometimes impair their ability to do this,'' Warford said.
The double-F schools will also write individualized ''success plans'' for every student, and the district would be forced to end social promotion at schools that feed students to the failing school. Failure to comply with the new rules could allow the state to hire a private company to take over the school next year. Stierheim bristled at some of those rules, saying ``part of the problem is the state programs.''
''The shotgun approach of telling teachers to go into another school -- I'm not sure that will work,'' Toural added.
The new sanctions would also immediately shut down double-F charter schools, starting with four across the state that received a second F this year. One, North Lauderdale Academy Charter School, is in Broward County. The others are in Polk and Duval counties.
Statewide, schools were slightly less likely to receive A or B grades this year than in 2003, while the number of schools receiving C's, D's and F's increased and the number of ''double-F'' schools -- was larger than ever before.
''We do continue to have some schools that struggle,'' said Horne, discussing the grades at the state board meeting at Miami Dade College. ``I'm never going to give up on them.''
Nearly 68 percent of the state's schools received an A or B this year, down from nearly 72 percent last year. Almost 9 percent of schools were handed a D or F, up from 7 percent last year.
''School grades give parents, educators and the community at large the kind of information they want, they deserve, about how successful the schools are in their community and their state,'' Horne said.
Despite the dip in grades, significantly more schools met the No Child Left Behind standard -- nearly a quarter across the state, up from 16 percent last year.
Horne and Gov. Jeb Bush dismissed charges that the state's grading system, with its large number of A and B schools, was inconsistent with the low number meeting federal standards.
The federal measure is designed to diagnose specific groups of students who are struggling in a school, they said, while the state grades are meant to measure overall performance. Even weaknesses within a small group of students can prevent a school from meeting the federal standard of Adequate Yearly Progress, but would have only a small impact on the state grade.
Bush intimated, as he has for months, that the rising number of high grades means the state should again raise the cutoff scores -- essentially making it harder to earn top marks.
''Given the opportunity after thoughtful review, we will raise standards where it's appropriate,'' he said.
``I'm not announcing any new initiative here -- I'm just suggesting to you we will never go back.''
Herald staff writer Gary Fineout and database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.
Matthew I. Pinzur
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