Miami ‘Zone’ Gives Schools Intensive Help

Students in a class using Reading XL learn to do reference research.
Students in a class using Reading XL learn to do reference research.
—Barbara P. Fernandez

Some of the lowest-performing schools in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district could soon be weaned from three years of strategic support. Will they be able to sustain their progress?

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Miami Jackson High School has long been one of Florida’s worst-performing schools. But optimism is tiptoeing down its peelingpaint hallways. For two of the last three years, it has brought its state grade up from an F to a D.

Staff members credit the intensive academic therapy their school has received as part of the School Improvement Zone, a nearly 3-year-old initiative aimed at resuscitating 39 of the Miami-Dade County school district’s most troubled schools. Those schools have a longer school day and year, an intensive curriculum, extra teacher training and instructional coaches, and their own distinct support structure at district headquarters.

But now the initiative, known locally as “the zone”—one of the nation’s most ambitious campaigns to improve urban schools—is in its final year. No one knows yet what special supports, if any, those schools will continue to get, and some worry that their hard-fought gains could erode.

“We cannot think about stopping,” said T.Willard Fair, who serves on the zone’s advisory board, is the chairman of the Florida state board of education, and is also the president and chief operating officer of the Urban League of Greater Miami. “We’re on the right track. But if there is no zone, they’ll revert back to where they came from.”

Superintendent Rudolph F. Crew, who started the School Improvement Zone in January 2005, six months after arriving in Miami, said that at $37 million a year, and with a state economic pinch making district cuts likely, the approach is too costly to preserve in its current form. But he expects that some of its key practices, such as a longer school day or year, and curriculum interventions geared to students’ achievement levels, will continue in schools that need them, or for groups of students who need them.

Teacher Mario Olaciregui works with pupils in a Reading XL class, which focuses on interactive lessons and small-group work. Students are assigned to reading classes based on their state-test scores.
Teacher Mario Olaciregui works with pupils in a Reading XL class, which focuses on interactive lessons and small-group work. Students are assigned to reading classes based on their state-test scores.
—Barbara P. Fernandez

“It’s been a jump start to get people focused,” he said during a recent interview in his office. “The system has to be able to respond to intense need. But that prioritization doesn’t need to be a zone mandate.”

Creating a subset of ailing schools for special central-office ministering isn’t a new strategy. Mr. Crew pioneered the approach in 1996, when he was the chancellor of the New York City schools, and other districts have tried their own versions. In the national debate about whether stronger centralized control or more school-level autonomy is a more powerful tactic for school change, Miami’s School Improvement Zone represents one theory in action.

With 44,000 students, the zone here is as big as the Portland, Ore., school district. Its students, who are overwhelmingly poor, and black or Hispanic, lag far behind Miami-Dade’s 300,000 other pupils on Florida’s reading and mathematics tests. For the past 2½ years, moving them up the achievement chart has been a top mandate, entrusted to a specially designated 11-person team.

Led by Associate Superintendent Geneva K. Woodard, the team hand-picks the schools’ principals and assistant principals, assigns mentors to less experienced school leaders, makes sure all zone schools are fully staffed, and visits the schools often to observe and consult with staff members.

Ms. Woodard, who reports directly to Mr. Crew, holds monthly group meetings with all 39 zone principals, as well as monthly “data chats” with them individually to review interim assessments and other indicators of student progress. Each Friday, she reviews the information she and her staff gathered from their school visits that week, and talks with principals about trouble areas.

On a recent visit to one school, for instance, she noticed that administrators spent too much time in their offices. She talked with the principal, who directed them to spend more time observing and supporting classroom instruction.

Adolfo L. Costa, the principal of Allapattah Middle School, one of the schools that feed into Jackson High, said the close monitoring is welcome.

Mandricka Muñoz, 14, left, and Diamone Wright, 14, both 9th graders at Miami Jackson, wear headphones while using the Read 180 program.
Mandricka Muñoz, 14, left, and Diamone Wright, 14, both 9th graders at Miami Jackson, wear headphones while using the Read 180 program.
—Barbara P. Fernandez

“It’s an excellent thing,” he said. “They are supportive. It’s not a ‘gotcha.’ It’s ‘What can we do to help?’ I can pick up the phone now and say, ‘Dr.Woodard, I need something.’ When you are in the zone, you make a phone call to any district office and they know it’s a priority.”

All zone schools have a school day that is one hour longer, and a school year that is two weeks longer, than the district’s 321 other schools. A special agreement with the local teachers’ union made the longer hours possible, provided 20 percent more pay for teachers who chose zone jobs, and required extra professional development for those teachers. The schools get extra math and reading coaches, and use a uniform, specialized curriculum geared to students’ performance level Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

At Jackson High, for instance, a recent morning found freshmen divided into English classes according to their FCAT reading scores. Those who had scored at Level 1, the lowest of five levels, were using Scholastic Inc.’s Read 180 as their English curriculum.

Rose Davidson, a 20-year teaching veteran, spent the first part of class with the whole group, discussing the author’s intent in a story they were reading. Then she divided the class into small groups. Some worked on the computer with headphones, spelling or saying words on the screen, while others worked on literacy exercises at listening stations, read independently, or worked with Ms. Davidson on using the word endings -ing or -ed.

Down the hall, freshmen with FCAT Level 2 reading scores were using Scholastic’s Read XL. In another classroom, those considered to be at or above grade level, with Levels 3-5 FCAT scores, were reading and discussing passages from one of the textbooks on which Miami-Dade bases its standard reading curriculum, McDougal-Littell’s The Language of Literature. Similar instructional differentiation by FCAT level unfolds in math.

Here at Jackson, and in any zone school, students below grade level in reading, math, or both receive double doses of instruction in small groups. Those who don’t need the extra time choose electives. Some zone schools have adjusted their schedules to make at least one elective slot available for the “double-dosing” students. Jackson and Allapattah moved from daily class schedules to longer blocks every other day in part because that arrangement frees up more time for such classes.

“That’s the down part of the double dosing, that your Level 1 and Level 2 kids can’t take as much chorus, agriculture, creative writing,” said Mr. Costa. “But the reality is that they do need the extra math and reading help.”

Digging Into Data

Students in Miami-Dade’s School Improvement Zone generally score lower than those in the district overall on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. In some grades and subjects, however, they are moving out of the lowest levels into the upper levels more rapidly than students districtwide. Level 1 is the lowest of five levels on the test. Level 3 or above is considered proficient.

Like other zone schools, Allapattah, with 660 students, has extra instructional help. Three reading coaches, three math coaches, and three curriculum-support specialists work with staff members and students there. Mr. Costa sits down with his teachers twice a month for “data talks,” poring over 4-inch-thick binders of interim assessment figures that help them adjust their teaching.

Piles of data books line the long conference table in Principal Deborah Love’s office at Jackson High as well. Those numbers tell the story of the zone’s approach paying off, Ms. Love said. The 1,560-student school brought its state rating up to D last spring, even as proficiency targets were raised. The number of Jackson students passing the FCAT is edging up, though it’s still frustratingly low—13 percent in reading and 36 percent in math. The school is making its biggest gains among the lowest-performing quartile of students, however.

“If it were up to me, we’d keep going with all that we have in the zone, because it’s been so worthwhile,” Ms. Love said during a recent break from classroom visits.

Ronald Wright, a 22-year teaching veteran and a math coach at Jackson, thinks the progress in math—8 percentage points above last year’s performance—is due to “people and programs we’d never be able to get” without the zone’s focus.

Zone School Features

• One additional hour in the school day
• Two additional weeks in the school year

• Teachers earn 20 percent more for extended hours
• Teachers are required to complete 56 hours a year of professional development

• Double periods of math and literacy for students scoring below proficient on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test
• Use of curriculum interventions geared to students’ grade level and FCAT scores
• Use of math and literacy coaches
• More frequent interim assessments and use of data to adjust instruction
• 6th and 9th grade “transition academies”

• Poor academic performance for three years
• Weak leadership across the feeder pattern
• Leadership capacity

39 schools from eight feeder patterns
• 20 elementary schools
• 11 middle
• 8 senior high
43,960 students participate
• 66% African-American
• 30% Hispanic
• 78% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
• 17% English-language learners

The grades that schools in the School Improvement Zone earned on Florida’s annual report card are based on FCAT scores, growth in those scores, and the percentage of students tested.

NOTE: Numbers in each school year do not total 39 because only 37 schools receive a grade based on the FCAT, and because two schools received incompletes.

Math teacher Evelyn Hernandez said the longer work hours can take their toll: “Sometimes by Friday, it feels like a very long week,” she said with a smile. But she said she likes having more time with her students and seeing them advance.

Zone tactics are hardly a cure-all, though. After moving from a D in 2005 to a C in 2006, Allapattah Middle School got an F this past spring, set back by a newly introduced science test and by flat or declining trends that year in the portions of students scoring well or making gains.

“It’s hard—I won’t tell you otherwise,” Mr. Costa said. “But we’ve got the right things in place to improve. It will happen.”

Both the zone’s fans and its foes find ammunition in its academic scorecard. School board member Marta Pérez, one of Superintendent Crew’s most vocal opponents, notes that zone students still lag far behind district students overall in proficiency on state tests, and that the number of F schools in the zone went from three in 2006 to 10 in 2007.

“We are paying all this money, and we have more F schools than ever,” Ms. Pérez said.

School board member Evelyn L. Greer counters that adding the science test drove the number of F schools up statewide. Without that, she said, only four zone schools would have gotten F’s. It is a “huge achievement,” Ms. Greer argued, that zone students are moving out of the lowest FCAT scoring levels and into the proficient levels at rates that often outpace the district’s students overall.

Board member Ana Rivas Logan praised the zone for directing academic help to where it was most needed, and for making full staffing a top priority in schools that were often hobbled by high teacher-vacancy rates. But budgetary realities and resentment in some quarters mean the district must find other ways of delivering “long-term TLC” to those schools, she said.

“We have A and B schools grumbling that they don’t have a support structure,” Ms. Logan said. “We need to level the playing field budgetarily. They deserve support, too.”

By encouraging teachers to leave zone schools if they didn’t want to commit to the challenge, and paying more to those who chose those jobs, Mr. Crew sent an important signal, said Karen Aronowitz, the president of the 18,000-member United Teachers of Dade, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“It’s the recognition that these children have the capacity to do the work, and that if you didn’t have that belief, you shouldn’t be at that location,” she said. “We support that.”

Mr. Crew sees the coming years not as the end of the zone, but another, broader iteration of it. Its lessons about targeted curriculum, staff training, and administrative support can now be applied as needed in a more tailored and cost-effective way systemwide, he said. Then the zone will have proved to be a potent form of leverage for improving the entire district, Mr. Crew said.

“If you can get your arms around the situation [with one group of schools] so the rest of the system has to organize money differently, staff differently, talk to parents differently, be held to a different level of accountability, build a different monitoring system, you’re into the jugular veins of how the system functions,” he said. “You’re in the mother lode.”

Miami Jackson High School 9th graders Jennifer Cruz and Keyerra Davis are among the students practicing skills in an on-grade-level reading class.
Miami Jackson High School 9th graders Jennifer Cruz and Keyerra Davis are among the students practicing skills in an on-grade-level reading class.
—Barbara P. Fernandez

Some zone advocates, though, fear that downsizing or broadening the initiative will inevitably mean a net loss of energy and resources in those needy schools just as they have started to get a bit of academic traction.

Ms. Aronowitz said she wonders how many teachers will remain if zone schools revert to traditional-length days and they lose their 20 percent pay differential. Mr. Fair, the state board chairman, said a broader focus, by definition, means a less intense beam in the zone. And it’s too soon for that, he said.

“We have not turned it around.We are in the process of turning it around,” Mr. Fair said. “You’ve got to have intensive, long-term therapy for these schools that have been neglected for all these years. When it ceases to be structured like a priority, for whatever reasons, it ceases to have value at the street level.”

Vol. 27, Issue 08, Pages 24-27

Published in Print: October 17, 2007, as Miami ‘Zone’ Gives Schools Intensive Help
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