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Published in Print: October 1, 1999, as Do Or Die

Do Or Die

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The new year arrived at Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy in a bold, colorful way. Students at the K-5 school in Pensacola, Florida, sported uniforms of navy shorts and crisp white polo shirts, the girls punctuating the look with matching hair ribbons and beads. Even the teachers, secretaries, and classroom volunteers got in on the act, their fashion sense set aside for the sake of school unity.

Staff and students could easily have opened the year dressed in mourning black. Recently, the state branded Bibbs a failing school and delivered what some think could be a fatal blow: Under a new accountability initiative approved recently by Florida lawmakers, Bibbs students were offered vouchers to attend the public or private school of their choice. Dozens took the state up on its offer, and if more children flee in the coming years, the school could eventually be forced to close.

Bibbs is not the only Florida school facing this do-or-die situation. Students at nearby A.A. Dixon Elementary can also use state funds to enroll at other schools. But neither Bibbs nor Dixon is giving up. Together, they are fighting back to prove their failing marks-the state literally gave the schools an F for their students' scores on state tests-are a mistake.

At Bibbs, a new dress code, 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," says Linda Scott, 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."

Bibbs and Dixon have long operated under less-than-ideal circumstances. They enroll children from six low-income public-housing projects; nearly all the students are poor enough to get free or low-cost meals through the federal school-lunch program.

The two schools found themselves under the microscope after students failed to meet performance requirements in reading, writing, and mathematics on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, a state assessment administered for the first time last February. Seventy-eight other schools also were given F's for their students' low test scores, but Bibbs and Dixon were chosen for the voucher plan because they had been on the state's watch list of low-performing schools in 1998. Many more schools are expected to qualify for vouchers next year if the program-the nation's first-ever statewide private school choice plan-continues.

Though there's been no exodus from Bibbs and Dixon, enrollment has dipped. Fifty-eight students from the neighborhoods served by the two schools were chosen by lottery for vouchers worth $3,400 each. They now attend one of five private schools participating in the state program, 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.

So far, the schools don't appear to be facing the staffing and funding shortages that voucher opponents predicted when the legislature passed the accountability plan last spring.

The district has declined to answer the enrollment drop with layoffs, so student-to-staff ratios have actually improved. The schools have also hired additional full-time reading and writing specialists this fall, using federal Title I money and state aid targeted toward improving low-performing schools. Students, according to both principals, are getting more one-on-one interaction than ever before.

Recently, the state kicked in $300,000 to help the schools shift from the standard 180-day year to a 210-day calendar. "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," says Jim May, superintendent of the Escambia County schools. "As far as I know, we've received more help than any other district in the state."

The community has also rallied behind the two schools. Both schools boast of the banners, balloons, and baskets of apples sent by well-wishers from other district schools. A group of local organizations raised $5,000 to buy uniforms for needy Bibbs students. And a nearby health club recently called to offer staff members massages.

Both principals say neighborhood support is stronger than they've ever seen. Perhaps most significant, says Bibbs' Scott, is her new corps of volunteers. Thanks to local churches, companies, and a group of retirees known as the school's "foster grandparents," the principal can call on more than 50 volunteers for help.

The voucher threat has also prompted dramatic changes in the curriculum at each school. Bibbs and Dixon are unabashedly teaching to the state test, having abandoned much of their previous academic program to focus almost exclusively on reading, writing, and math. In some Dixon classrooms, cardboard note cards filled with sample questions are propped on tables; students do one problem a day to get used to the exam's format.

In many of their classroom drills, Dixon teachers use mechanical timers to acquaint students with working under pressure. "The timing of the test frustrates children," says principal Judy Ladner. Last year, Ladner says, a boy felt so squeezed for time that he shoved his test booklet off his desk and refused to continue.

Though hopeful that the test prep will boost scores, officials say there are trade-offs. "What we're doing with high-stakes testing is not looking at the whole person," says Superintendent May. "Everything other than reading, writing, and math has become secondary."

T he changes at the two schools have pleased some parents. With everyone from the music instructor to the gym teacher helping to teach reading in the morning, Bibbs students get lots of personal attention, says Rita Grand berry. The mother of a 2nd grader and a kindergartner at the school, Grandberry sees a big change. "The environment, the learning structure is better this year."

But Bibbs' quest for improvement is too little, too late for Tracy Richardson, who is using a state voucher to send her 8-year-old daughter to a nearby Montessori school. "It took competition to make improvements" at the school, she explains. "Everyone's focus now is the kids. It's a totally different scene. Why didn't they do it before?"

The future at Bibbs and Dixon is uncertain. Voucher opponents-including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the state affiliate of the National Education Association-have filed a lawsuit to challenge Florida's plan, and the suit is pending in state court. The plaintiffs say the program violates state and federal constitutional prohibitions on aid to religion.

If the state beats back the legal challenge and the program continues, the principals at both Bibbs and Dixon worry about what will happen if enrollments don't grow. Even if they raise test scores enough to escape the state's new accountability measures, the schools could face tough decisions.

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

--Jessica Sandham

Vol. 11, Issue 2, Pages 11-12

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