From Worst to First

By Karla Scoon Reid — April 11, 2001 16 min read
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Two wide-eyed girls nervously rattle off the latest announcements on Fessenden Elementary School’s closed-circuit TV newscast. After detailing the all-important lunch menu, the 5th graders toss the show to Betty D. Brown, the assistant principal, for a much-needed pep talk.

Some educators characterize Fessenden as a success story worthy of being replicated by other struggling schools serving poor children.

The latest round of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, is a week away, and students and teachers are on edge about the high-stakes test. Brown, who has organized a pep rally for later that day, tries to calm their nerves.

“A ferocious animal is coming,” she says in her best drama-filled storytelling voice. “We’ve done so many things to tame that cat [the FCAT]. We’re not afraid.

“Do everything it takes to be winners.”

She signs off, almost singing: “Have a great day, boys and girls!”

With that, Fessenden’s FCAT countdown started. In a mere seven days, students clutching No. 2 pencils would hunch over test booklets at their desks in silence. Teachers would anxiously pace around the class, searching students’ faces for encouraging signs.

The historic central Florida school is intimately familiar with the immeasurable impact of students’ test results. Fessenden is one of only two Florida schools that made the dramatic leap from an F in 1999 under the state’s grading system to an A last year. Under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ plan to overhaul the state’s public schools, Fessenden and Brentwood Elementary School in Pensacola avoided qualifying for vouchers by exceeding minimum performance standards for 5th graders in math and 4th graders in reading and writing. The schools also had to make gains with their poorer-performing students.

Some educators characterize Fessenden as a success story worthy of being replicated by other struggling schools serving poor children. About 81 percent of the school’s 560 students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. But other educators and residents here are reluctant to acknowledge Fessenden’s gains because of its students’ low test scores in the past.

“I believe that some of the best teaching and learning occurs in schools that are perceived to be failures,” says John D. Smith, the superintendent of the 38,000-student Marion County schools from 1992 to 2000. The fact that Fessenden improved from an F to an A is not by accident, he says, but thanks to a plan. “They accepted [the F] as a challenge rather than a put-down. They have a lot of pride,” Smith says.

The final exam for Fessenden, however, may be this year’s test, since most people here believe maintaining the effort that catapulted the school to the head of the class will be a Herculean task.

With this year’s testing wrapped up, Brown refuses to fret about the students’ scores and the school’s fate.

“Honey, I just packed those tests up and sent them off in the name of Jesus,” Brown says, with a slight Southern lilt. “I didn’t worry about it. We’ve done the best we can do.”

Nestled in Marion County, about 90 miles northwest of Orlando and northeast of Tampa, Ocala is a traditional, sleepy Southern town with a touch of Florida charm sans the tourist trappings. The 47,000-resident city proudly claims to be the horse capital of the world, boasting 900 horse farms.

While about 85 percent of Marion County’s 255,000 residents are white, the community has a rich African-American heritage, closely linked to Fessenden. The school is named after Ferdinand Fessenden, a wealthy white man who helped finance a private boarding school for black children in 1868. Fessenden Academy, as it was later called, became an elite education center for African- Americans in the county.

By 1953, the district owned the school and gradually transformed Fessenden into an elementary school. Classes were integrated in the 1970s. Today, most of the original buildings are long gone, but there’s still a strong sense of history permeating the school’s 20-acre campus.

Just past the truck-salvage yard and the Ten-Four shortwave radio store, but before the stock car speedway, Fessenden Elementary School is tucked down a side road at the end of a row of 20 towering palm trees. The school’s main building is architecturally striking, with a red terra-cotta tiled roof and natural rock walls. In front of the school, at the base of the American flag, rests a large gray tombstone marking Ferdinand Fessenden’s grave.

Although the school is revered by Marion County’s black residents, people here readily admit that Fessenden is dismissed by some in the white community.

‘I believe that some of the best teaching and learning occurs in schools that are perceived to be failures.’

John D. Smith,
Marion County schools,
1992 to 2000.

“What had happened was that school had gotten a bad rap because it was an old black high school,” says Bobby L. James, who served as Fessenden’s principal from 1987 to 1992. “It had a stigma that it was not a good school.”

Thus, Fessenden has been treated as such, says the Rev. Eugene F. Broxton, who served as the school’s principal from 1963 to 1984. Teachers taught from hand-me-down textbooks with missing pages and used old jelly jars as test tubes in the science lab.

“Yet, there was a real sense of commitment and determination,” Broxton stresses. “Those children excelled.”

Over the years, he says, additional federal dollars and parent activism improved Fessenden’s learning environment. Today, about 56 percent of the school’s enrollment is made up of white students. But the community’s perception of the school has remained unchanged, Broxton says.

“The people who thought Fessenden deserved an F in this community haven’t overcome certain ideas and attitudes about other people,” he says.

School was out for the summer of 1999 when local TV reports delivered the devastating news that Fessenden and two other Marion County schools had earned F’s from the state for student achievement.

While some people couldn’t believe that Fessenden was ranked among the state’s worst schools, others called the news a critical shakeup that publicly acknowledged the school’s needs and persistent academic deficiencies.

“I wasn’t down,” declares 5th grade teacher Cynthia McGinnis, referring to the failing grade. “I was like, ‘See, I told you we had a problem.’ ”

Smith, the superintendent at the time, gathered the staff members of the district’s failing schools to offer help and give them what he called a “reality check.” Under the state plan, students attending schools that earned F’s twice in a four-year period were eligible for tuition vouchers to attend private schools.

“The bottom line is that your job is on the line,” Smith recalls telling the group. “The time for debating education philosophies has passed. These are the rules, and this is what is expected.”

Loretta Pompey Jenkins, Fessenden’s plainspoken, bespectacled principal, says: “We had a pity party. But we figured that we couldn’t go any lower.”

At Fessenden, Jenkins, a 30-year education veteran, and Assistant Principal Brown worked throughout that summer to devise a plan to boost the school’s grade. Analyzing the test scores, they found that Fessenden’s 4th and 5th graders had narrowly failed to meet state goals in reading and mathematics, while the writing scores were far below the state mark.

After district officials declared that an A was unattainable, Fessenden set its sights on a C, which meant students would have to meet all of the state’s minimum-performance standards.

While Fessenden educators called their quest “From Fantastic to Commendable,” others discouraged them from setting their goals so high. Brown, who has worked at Fessenden for 28 years, says one board member told her a D would be acceptable, considering the students’ past academic performance.

“They made us feel so badly sometimes,” Brown admits, shaking her head. “We were an F school, and they started looking at us like we were going to be an F school again.”

The F grade triggered visits from state education officials, school district personnel, and staff members from other Florida districts. State law requires the Florida education department to provide help to schools that earn a failing grade.

Jim Howard, the state official who heads the school improvement team for the northeast region of Florida, says his office tries to link failing schools with grant opportunities and information about best teaching practices. His staff reviews the schools’ current academic programs, evaluating their effectiveness.

“We don’t tell them what they’re doing wrong,” he says. “We help them look for strategies.”

To help all teachers, extensive staff development was provided, Howard says. Along with teachers from the district office and the state, Brown modeled instructional techniques in Fessenden’s classrooms.

“You can’t expect teachers to change unless you show them how to change,” Howard advises.

‘We were an F school, and they started looking at us like we were going to be an F school again.’

Betty D. Brown,
Assistant Principal,
Fessenden Elementary School

Marva Cogdell, a 4th grade teacher and 19-year Fessenden veteran, acknowledges that most teachers were reluctant to adapt their teaching styles.

“The attitudes that some people portrayed,” she says, “it’s like [some teachers] wanted us to fail.”

From teaching students test-taking skills to studying ways of individualizing instruction, Fessenden teachers worked feverishly to free their school from the F label. They also received lots of help and more than $400,000 in additional federal, state, and local money.

All 5th grade teachers have been assigned teaching assistants, while the 4th grade teachers share two aides. Five teachers joined the staff to reduce the pupil-to-teacher ratio to about 18-to-1 in 1st through 3rd grades.

Students were tested often to identify their strengths and weaknesses and track their progress. The frequency of art, music, and gym classes was cut back in 1999 in favor of longer classes, held less often, to reduce interruptions of class time. Last school year, Fessenden offered after-school tutoring for children who were reading below grade level.

“The teachers worked smarter, rather than just harder,” says Mary Wines, the school’s literacy-lab coordinator.

The “slackers,” as 5th grade teacher McGinnis describes some of her former colleagues, were weeded out. She says other teachers kicked in a little bit more effort because students’ scores can be tracked back to individual classrooms.

In the classroom, Fessenden teachers shifted their reading instruction to stress phonics instead of the whole-language approach. Rather than teaching the entire class at the same level, teachers lead small-group instruction based on students’ abilities.

The new techniques were apparent as students in Sandra Rios’ 4th grade class read a passage called “The Dragon’s Door” from a test- preparation booklet. While Rios worked with a group of eight students reading below grade level at the front of the room, the rest of the class tackled the passage’s questions in small groups.

The children with Rios took turns reading the story aloud. “Sound it out, honey,” Rios cooed to one child having trouble pronouncing a word.

Students used orange and yellow highlighters to identify answers to the questions in the passage.

“Why do we read the questions first?” Rios asked. A student piped up: “So we can understand and get the right answer.” Rios smiled broadly.

Because the writing test is given in late February and the math and reading portions in early March, teachers usually aren’t able to cover all the skills students will need to succeed.

Fessenden adopted a new math curriculum last year, called Acaletics, to address that disadvantage. While most teachers taught math chapter by chapter, the new curriculum calls for students to learn multiple concepts simultaneously. For example, a lesson on fractions tackles division and multiplication, too.

The classroom atmosphere for those lessons is “controlled chaos,” says Mike Bell, a senior associate for Educational Development Associates Inc., the Miami-based company that created Acaletics. Children are encouraged to talk, raise their hands, and move around. Students also are grouped based on ability level, with the three 5th grade teachers providing an hour of math instruction daily. All children work on the same curriculum, Bell points out, but they review the lessons at a slower pace.

Gloria Rowley, who teaches students who excel at math, seemingly feeds off the frenetic learning pace. The goal is for all 90 of the school’s 5th graders to make it to her room.

Last month, just five days before testing, she had 43 of the 5th graders. The children fended for themselves when it came to seats: Some sat at computer terminals, and others flopped on a couch. A small group of students worked with a teaching assistant on the same problems. Students were talking and critiquing one another’s work, as Rowley peppered them with questions about mean, median, and mode.

“We never got through the whole [math] book before the end of the year,” she says of past years. “Now, we’re going back through the book to review it.”

As teachers provided students with more challenging lessons, students also needed to learn how to take the FCAT, says Brown, the assistant principal. The test emphasizes long answers and critical thinking along with multiple-choice questions.

Using a test-preparation program called Blast Off, students practice FCAT-type questions and are given tips to make sure they answer fully. Teachers frequently review words found in test questions, such as compare, contrast, cause, and effect.

Too much test talk can be overwhelming, though. And there’s fine line between instilling the importance of the FCAT in students and frightening them.

“I’m one of the smartest kids in class, and I’m afraid,” 9-year-old Samantha Moody says emphatically.

Amanda Decker has had enough of the FCAT. Now in 5th grade, Amanda says teachers were even harder on students last year.

“I’m wishing the test was already over,” the red-haired 11-year-old says, sighing.

But Roberto Marrero, 10, declares that doing well on the FCAT will “open the door to success.” The 4th grader boasts: “I’m not nervous, because I know I can do it.”

Building students’ self-esteem was a challenge in the face of negative publicity about the school’s performance, 4th grade teacher Cogdell says. The school used a character-building program based on lessons and role-playing. Cogdell says she repeatedly told students that they had the ability to do well on the tests: “I had to pump the kids up,” she says. “ ‘We’re not an F school. You are not an F student.’ ”

Enlisting parent support has been difficult in an isolated attendance area that covers 125 square miles and includes farms, trailer parks and only one subdivision. Just one child walks to school, and many students come from families with limited means and poor literacy skills. The school’s annual mobility rate is about 42 percent.

Fessenden tried to get parents to help by explaining the grading system and the school’s new instructional programs. The school provided door prizes, free supplies of bleach and shampoo, and meals to attract parents to information sessions. At parents’ night, teachers demonstrated how parents should read aloud to their children. Parents responded by attending Fessenden events in record numbers.

“I always believed in the school,” says Sharon Inkell, whose son Damon is in the 4th grade. “I never once considered leaving.”

Jenkins and Brown, the school leaders, say it is essential to monitor teachers closely to ensure that the state’s academic standards—which are used as a model for the FCAT questions—are emphasized. The two administrators scrutinize lesson plans to determine if instruction is directly linked to the standards. The goal is to spend 90 percent of class time on direct teaching.

“I had to be out there to make sure it happened,” Brown says.

But some teachers resented—and still do—the idea that administrators would be peering over their shoulders in class. Annoyed and insulted, some teachers have found the pressure almost unbearable.

“Where is the respect given?” says Rowley, the math teacher. “Look at the miracles we have to perform.”

Without Brown as head cheerleader, many teachers say, students wouldn’t have made as many gains.

“Mrs. Brown was the backbone,” says Elizabeth Cannon, a 3rd grade teacher who described the intense supervision as “hard medicine.”

It seems, however, that all the prodding and incessant talk of testing has taken its toll on some teachers.

At a schoolwide pep rally to gear students up for the reading and math tests, some teachers were less than enthusiastic. As students waved handmade signs that read “Try Hard” and “Ace the FCAT” and Brown led students in cheers, some teachers stood with their arms folded, rolling their eyes. After Brown serenaded teachers with a song of appreciation and handed out red apples, one teacher said: “It’s Mrs. Brown’s show.”

Brown readily admits that Fessenden’s staff isn’t a perfectly cohesive unit. But she remains unfazed.

“It’s not about the programs,” she declares. “It’s about changing teachers’ attitudes, parents’ attitudes, and students’ attitudes. If you don’t want to do whatever it takes to make children winners, then you need to move on.”

When the test results were released last year, most of Marion County was in shock. Fessenden Elementary School didn’t simply become “commendable,” it was labeled an A school, or “Awesome,” as Brown likes to call the grade. The district’s other two F-rated schools earned C’s. Principal Jenkins got a congratulatory call from Tom Gallagher, who was then Florida’s commissioner of education.

The news media descended on the school, and the governor visited the campus last fall. The school also received a $54,000 award, which is being used for staff bonuses and instructional materials.

Fessenden’s students posted double- digit improvements in reading, writing, and math, exceeding the higher performance standards needed to earn an A. The percentage of students earning the lowest test scores decreased by 14 percent. “I was ecstatic,” says Earnestine Lavan, who has spent 25 years teaching at Fessenden. “I felt we were going to improve, but an A was really out of sight.”

But as the public spotlight on the school dimmed, the pressure to maintain the A intensified. A reading coach and a new literacy lab at Fessenden are targeting students who are below grade level. Students work on their grade levels, focusing on comprehension, word recognition, sounds, and syllables. The school uses Reading Rescue, a curriculum that emphasizes a balance between phonics and whole- language methods, for students in lower grades.

The school also is continuing its mentor program, in which community members help students read for 30 minutes a week.

This year, hopes are high after the school’s first taste of academic success, but they’re grounded in reality. Fessenden students exceeded the state’s higher-performing criteria by fewer than 5 percentage points in reading and writing last year. With a third of the 115 4th graders reading below grade level and another 20 who were held back a grade last year, an A may be elusive a second time.

Leaving nothing to chance, local ministers gathered once again to pray at the school’s flagpole on the Sunday before testing this spring.

But when testing concluded in March, students seemed confident, Jenkins says. Students told her the test was easy and contained little that they couldn’t handle. Regardless of her teachers’ worries, Jenkins refuses to brace herself for bad news. She shrugs off as “petty jealousy” suggestions that sustained, gradual growth is a better indicator of success than the dramatic shift from an F to an A.

“When it’s not you, you throw darts at everything,” Fessenden’s principal says. “We’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing. We want our kids to perform.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as From Worst to First


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