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Published in Print: April 11, 2001, as 'We Didn't Think It Would Happen'

'We Didn't Think It Would Happen'

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When Florida crafted its high-stakes assessment and accountability system, the goal was to identify and improve poor-performing schools. Few predicted any school would rise from the bottom of the Sunshine State's letter rankings to the top in one year. Still, that's just what Fessenden Elementary School in Ocala and Brentwood Elementary School in Pensacola did.

"We were all surprised, not because it's impossible, but just because we didn't think it would happen," JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, says of the schools' leap from F's in 1999 to A's the following year.

Most educators believe that Fessenden's feat is a rarity that may be hard to sustain this year. In addition, some say maintaining the top grade may be a better indicator of the school's academic turnaround than the dramatic leap.

Florida's schools have been rated on the basis of student performance since 1996; the grading system was adopted in 1999 as part of Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ plan to improve achievement in mathematics, reading, and writing.

Earning F's for two out of four years makes a school's students eligible for tuition vouchers that can be used to attend private schools, including religious schools. The voucher program, the only such statewide plan in the country, is currently under legal challenge.

In 1999, 78 schools were assigned F's, and the students attending two Pensacola schools were eligible for vouchers; 319 schools qualified for cash awards for A grades or showing significant improvement. Last year, just four schools got F ratings, and 997 received state awards, including Fessenden. The two voucher-eligible schools raised their scores enough to shed that label.

James Warford, who was elected Marion County's first Republican superintendent of schools last fall, says Fessenden and two other elementary schools in the district that were assigned F's had been struggling for years. Without consequences for failure or a politically powerful parent base, he says, they were allowed to flounder.

"Unfortunately, it took labeling [Fessenden with] an F to focus us to do what we should have been doing all along and might not otherwise had done," he says.

Yet testing systems and rankings can be "really volatile," cautions H.D. Hoover, the president of the National Council on Measurement in Education and a professor of education at the University of Iowa. With small groups of students, he notes, five children can easily swing a school's results.

"It sort of points to the problems with making big decisions on the nature of indices," says Hoover, a senior author of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

As the spotlight on Fessenden dims, some people are concerned that the concentrated effort and resources spurred by the F will fade and diminish the rural school's chances for continued success.

"I think they moved from an F to an A because of the intensity of the instructional program, and because the programs they used were good for them," says Jim Howard, a state official who heads the school improvement team for northeast Florida, which includes Fessenden.

Carrin acknowledges that the state's priority, including financial help, must remain on schools rated D and F.

Warford recognizes that Fessenden's enrollment—a highly mobile group of poor students—has not changed. He says the district will allocate money and other resources to ensure that Fessenden's students keep achieving. This year, the school received more than $715,000 in federal and state money.

"Fessenden is a perfect example," he says, "of what low expectations can do to poor and minority kids."

—Karla Scoon Reid

Vol. 20, Issue 30, Page 34

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