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Published in Print: September 15, 1999, as Schools Hit by Vouchers Fight Back

Schools Hit by Vouchers Fight Back

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Change has arrived at Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy, symbolized by the colors blue and white.

Students at the K-5 school here are donning new uniforms of navy shorts and crisp white polo shirts this year; the girls are punctuating the look with matching hair ribbons and beads. The school's teachers, secretaries, and even classroom volunteers are also in on the act--their individual fashion preferences set aside for the sake of school unity.

The new dress code is a visible reminder of the less tangible changes staff members at Spencer Bibbs have made following their recent branding by the state as a failing school. Under a new accountability initiative, which includes the first statewide voucher program in the country, the school earned an F rating--a fate that befell nearly 80 other schools around the state.

But Bibbs also became one of only two Florida schools--the other, A.A. Dixon Elementary School, is just two miles away--where students were offered vouchers to attend another public or private school of their choice.

So, as much as they loathe the new state policy, staff members at both those Pensacola schools say they're determined to overcome the stigma and earn higher marks in the future. At Bibbs, the new uniforms, a longer school year, and a laser-like focus on reading, writing, and mathematics are all part of that effort.

"Everyone who is here is here because they want to be," said Linda Scott, the principal of the 334-student school. "Even the kids seem to have more of a commitment this year, because they're tired of reading about themselves being F students."

Scores Bear Bad News

Following the passage of the accountability program last spring, 58 students from the neighborhoods served by Bibbs and Dixon were chosen by lottery for vouchers worth about $3,400 each. They now attend one of five participating private schools, all but one of which are Catholic schools. Roughly 80 more students transferred to other public schools in the 46,000-student Escambia County district. At least partly as a result, enrollment at both Bibbs and Dixon has dropped.

Students at Bibbs and Dixon became eligible for vouchers after they failed to meet performance requirements in reading, writing, and math on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, a state assessment administered for the first time last February.

Under the legislation signed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in June, schools are graded on an A-to-F scale based almost exclusively on the state test results. Students in schools graded F for two out of every four years are to qualify for vouchers of up to $4,000 to attend qualifying public, private, or religious schools. Those graded A are to receive performance incentives of up to $100 per student to spend as they see fit. ("Vouchers Front and Center in Fla. Legislature," March 24, 1999.)

Though this is only the first year of the new policy, Bibbs and Dixon were chosen for the voucher plan because they were the only two of the 78 Florida schools given F's that had been on the state's 1998 list of critically low-performing schools. Many more schools are expected to qualify for vouchers next year if the program continues.

Lawsuit Targets Plan

A lawsuit aimed at eliminating the program, filed in June by a coalition including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the state affiliate of the National Education Association, is pending in state court. The plaintiffs say the program violates state and federal constitutional prohibitions on aid to religion, and harms public schools by diverting public funds.

Serving children from a total of six low-income public-housing projects, Bibbs and Dixon have long been used to operating under trying circumstances. Nearly all the students in their majority-black schools receive free or reduced-price lunches, and students are constantly entering and leaving the schools throughout the year.

This year, as the first casualties of the high-profile accountability plan, staff members at Bibbs and Dixon have also had to learn to work under a microscope--scrutinized by both camps in the ongoing national war over vouchers.

Noting the stream of national and international visitors she has hosted in the first few weeks of school, Dixon Principal Judy Ladner said that debunking myths about her school has become part of her job. "People come in here thinking that the kids are going to be hanging from the rafters," she said. "They think it's going to be a blackboard jungle, and it's just not the case."

What visitors do see in both the schools, the principals note, are students getting more one-on-one interaction with teachers and volunteers than ever before.

Thanks to the district's decision to insulate the schools from staff cuts tied to their lowered enrollments, student-to-staff ratios have fallen in the schools. The schools have actually hired additional full-time reading and writing specialists this fall, using federal Title I money and state aid targeted toward improving low-performing schools. And the state recently kicked in $300,000 to help the schools shift from the standard 180-day year to a 210-day calendar.

So for this year at least, the schools don't appear to be facing the staffing and funding shortages that voucher opponents predicted when the legislature debated the accountability plan last spring.

"To be fair, the department of education has come through with significant contributions in the way of manpower and money to help us through a hard time," said Jim May, the superintendent of the Escambia County schools. "As far as I know, we've received more help than any other district in the state."

Still, the principals at both Bibbs and Dixon worry about what will happen next year if enrollments don't grow. Even if they raise test scores enough to escape their status as failing schools, the schools could face tough decisions, Ms. Scott said.

"We're going to have to cut somewhere," the Bibbs principal said. "It's going to have to happen somewhere because our enrollment is down."

Community Support Surges

For now, however, the principals say they feel bolstered by greater community support than they've ever seen. Both schools boast of the banners, balloons, and baskets of apples that have been delivered to them by well-wishers from other district schools. A group of local organizations raised $5,000 to buy uniforms for Bibbs students who could not afford them. A nearby health club recently called to offer staff members massages.

Perhaps most significant, said Ms. Scott, are the offers to volunteer. With help from local churches, companies, and a group of retirees known as the school's "foster grandparents," the principal estimates she has access to more than 50 volunteers.

The extra help was evident during Bibbs' mandatory 90-minute reading block one recent morning, when 29 kindergarten students sat quietly bent over their notebooks, concentrating on their new phonics-based reading program. Two teachers and two volunteers monitored their progress closely. Ms. Scott noted that the recent hiring of a new teacher will soon reduce the class size to 20.

With everyone from the music instructor to the gym teacher helping to teach reading in the morning, the students get lots of personal attention, said Rita Grandberry, who turned down vouchers in favor of keeping her 2nd grader and kindergartner in the school.

"I see a big change," Ms. Grandberry said. "The environment, the learning structure is better this year."

But to Tracy Richardson, a single mother who opted to use a state voucher to send her 8-year-old daughter to a nearby Montessori school, Bibbs' marathon quest for improvement is too little, too late. Until this year, Ms. Richardson sent her daughter to live with her grandmother in a different part of town to avoid having to send her to Bibbs.

"I wanted her to go to another school so badly because of all the negative things I had heard about Spencer Bibbs from others in the neighborhood," Ms. Richardson said.

Now, with the help of a voucher, the girl lives at home and spends her days in a structured school environment that her mother believes has improved her behavior and concentration. Ms. Richardson has heard about the changes at Bibbs, but still plans to make her daughter's switch to a Montessori education permanent.

"It took competition to make improvements" at Bibbs, Ms. Richardson said. "Everyone's focus now is the kids. It's a totally different scene. Why didn't they do it before?"

Teaching to the Test

But if competition has forced improvements this year, it hasn't come without consequences, the schools' principals say.

Bibbs and Dixon are now unabashedly teaching to the state test, having abandoned much of their past academic programming to focus almost exclusively on reading, writing, and math.

In many of their teaching drills, teachers at Dixon are using mechanical timers for the first time to get students more comfortable with working under pressure. "The timing of the test frustrates children," Ms. Ladner said, recalling a boy who felt so squeezed for time last year that he shoved his test booklet off his desk and refused to continue.

Cardboard note cards filled with FCAT problems are also propped on tables in some classrooms; students do one problem a day to familiarize them with the exam's format. And during the school's recently added Saturday and after-school tutoring sessions, test-taking skills are stressed.

"What we're doing with high-stakes testing is not looking at the whole person," said Superintendent May. "Everything other than reading, writing, and math has become secondary."

But perhaps even more than having to live and breathe the FCAT, the principals deplore a "failing" label that they believe mischaracterizes their teachers and their schools.

After visiting the home of a 5th grade boy who missed school for the second day in a row--"because it's raining"--Ms. Ladner recalled how staff members went door to door when school started this summer, urging parents to send their children to school.

Teachers who care that much, she said, take the failure designation personally. "In the state law, if you're an F school, the implication is that you're not teaching," she said. "That's so untrue and it's so unfair."

Likewise, at Bibbs, 2nd grade teacher Stella Williams urges her children to ignore all the media reports that depict their school as failing. For William Green, a pupil in her class, that lesson seems to be sinking in. "We don't have low self-esteem," the boy declared over lunch. "The F just means we're flying high."

Vol. 19, Issue 2, Pages 1,20-21

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