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Miami-Dade: When a School Gets Labeled

Ohanian Comment: If you read carefully, you see that people change schools for a variety of reasons, including changing neighborhoods. Never mind: it's fun to beat up on 'F' Schools. Take a look at who's cheering the plight of these schools. No vested interest there. And ask why in one paragraph we read that overcrowding in district is "chronic" but in another paragraph read that enrollment in all schools is "dwindling." This article definitely raises more questions than it answers. One thing is clear: NCLB is about applying the "free market" to young children--and may the greediest entrepreneurs win.

The rooms at Floral Heights Elementary School are filled with emptiness, cavernous voids where just 10 or 11 students echo in classes that once held nearly 30.

The Brownsville school will close permanently today after more than 45 years, its student population having fallen from 484 in 1998 to 232 this year.

But Floral Heights is only the most extreme example of a trend at nearly all 28 Miami-Dade County elementaries that have received an F grade from the state: tumbling enrollments over the past four years.

''Seeing my school dwindling down, I've been so sad,'' said Zelma Jenkins, who has taught students at Floral Heights for 20 years, including the children of former students. ``I'm ready to cry.''

The school is large enough to handle nearly 700 students, and its desolation is a paradox in a district where overcrowding is a chronic problem.

A Herald analysis found almost all of the other ''F'' elementaries in the county moving in the same direction: Lillie C. Evans Elementary, for example, has only about half as many students as it did before the state started issuing grades in 1999.

Floral Heights, 5120 NW 24th Ave., is the only Miami-Dade public school closing because of low enrollment, but supporters of vouchers, charter schools and other school-choice programs said parents will continue to abandon schools branded failures by the state.

``No one wants to be classified as an F, said Mercedes Toural, chief education officer for the school district.

The average elementary has experienced shrinking enrollment, too, but not nearly as sharply as the F schools, the analysis showed. On average, an F school has 205 fewer students than other elementary schools.

That gap has grown every year since school grading began.


When Floral Heights received its second F in June 2002, parents had three options under state law: to leave their children there, to transfer them to a higher-performing public school or to use taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. In response, 67 students took transfers or vouchers.

In addition, many families have left the neighborhood, said principal Jean Teal.

''People want to find places with opportunities for home ownership, but there hasn't been much redevelopment here,'' she said.

In fact, many of the academic award winners whose names were called during a ceremony Tuesday have left Floral Heights since taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in February and March, Teal said.

''We have some fabulous teachers in these schools and some fabulous programs, regardless of the labels that have been placed on us,'' Teal said.

School grades and vouchers are bedrock principles in Gov. Jeb Bush's education overhaul plan and reflect Republican leaders' free-market view: When competition gives parents choice, they will gravitate toward the best schools.

``The whole idea is that if a school is failing, the students that happen to be there ought not be doomed to attending that school for the rest of the academic year, said Frances Marine of the state Department of Education, which is scheduled to release the 2003 school grades next week.

She said the plan was not designed to drive out low-performing schools, pointing out that Bush's program also includes mandatory intensive-care measures to rehabilitate failing schools.

Floral Heights, though, appears to be a casualty.

''It's the best thing that could happen to the children,'' said Charlotte Greenbarg, former president of the Dade County Council PTA/PTSA and current chairwoman of the conservative-leaning citizens group Independent Voices for Better Education. ``They have not been getting educated, and it's not because they can't learn.

Some parents, though, said the F grade acts like a scarlet letter, encouraging families to abandon the school instead of rehabilitating it.

''They listen when they're told it's an F school,'' said Cassandra Pritchett, 39, whose family has attended Floral Heights for three generations. ``They say it's the school's fault, but it's unfair to call it an F school.''

Her daughter, like most most Floral Heights students, will move to nearby schools next year, most of which are also underenrolled.


Some parents, though, said the school earned its F.

''I wanted to give the school a chance,'' said Jennifer Jones, who sent her daughter, Monet Dixon, to Floral Heights for the past two years. Even though the girl's report card was filled with A's and B's, she scored at the lowest level of the FCAT's reading exam. A new state regulation prevents her from entering fourth grade, leading Jones to conclude the school failed her daughter. Next year she will use the voucher program.

''They've been abusing these children for years, misleading parents by sending home papers with smiley faces and inflating grades,'' Greenbarg said.

High schools have been largely immune from the enrollment trend. ''I think there's less competition at the high school level,'' Toural said, ``largely because private high schools cost more.''

Floral Heights is the first school to close because of attendance in so many years that Toural, a 26-year veteran of the district, can't remember the last one. But unless the district finds more effective ways to improve low performers, Greenbarg said she expects more closings soon.

Because overcrowding and the new class-size amendment have made classroom space so valuable, the district is developing ways to fully use underenrolled schools.

Their most aggressive tool is a program to replicate the county's most desirable magnet programs at those sites.

``We're targeting those schools to see if we can put in really interesting programs that we know will attract people, Toural said. ``Parents want the best schools for their kids.

— Matthew I. Pinzur
Miami-Dade students bailing on failing elementary schools
Miami Herald
June 11, 2003


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