There was much celebrating in Duval County last week as the school district was the only one to add A-rated schools and reduce F-rated schools.
But wait a second. Weren't these grades mostly based on the despised Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test?
And weren't we warned that a more difficult grading system was going to result in a rash of lower-graded schools?
At the same time, Duval County's overall grade declined from a B to a C. The actual letter grade is simply a reflection of the dual school systems in Duval: one for high poverty children with great needs and an outstanding system of neighborhood and magnet schools for the more fortunate.
Actually, for those complaining that one high-stakes test has too much influence in Florida, just wait a few years.
The FCAT is on the way out, to be replaced by end-of-course exams that are designed to have more national credibility with common standards.
The idea that students must pass tests in class is not revolutionary.
The FCAT was just one step on the road to accountability. Flawed, to be sure, but a necessary step.
It is not a diagnostic test. Students need to be assessed in the first week of school and have instructional plans designed to deal with their weaknesses. In the digital era, this should be easier than ever.
There is a role for computerized instruction to help drill students and give them patient feedback. Through it all, teachers need to be guiding instruction. Grade recovery needs to be placed back in the control of teachers, not an excuse for students to slack off.
Duval County, in contrast to its suburban neighbors, has large proportions of low-income and minority students. There are many needs outside the classroom
in such schools. Good success has been earned in elementary schools and occasional success in difficult middle school years. It's more challenging to
maintain excellence in these schools, however. It's more difficult to replace a charismatic principal in such cases.
The KIPP story
One interesting case is the KIPP Impact School at the former dog track in the McDuff neighborhood. The school began with high promise but took valid criticism last year when it received an F grade. It needs to be emphasized that this represented just one fifth grade of 88 students.
Now as the second year finishes, the school includes 160 students in fifth and sixth grades. The school improved its grade to a C and just missed a B grade.
If you visit the school, it is apparent how hard the students are working. But hard work alone wasn't enough.
"We were a lot smarter this year at using data to plug student gaps in learning," said Tom Majdanics, executive director of the KIPP Jacksonville schools.
They tailored instruction and tutoring to the needs of the individual students.This worked especially well with math with students in the bottom quartile. Math learning gains were No. 1 in Duval County and No. 3 in the state. Reading gains were not so dramatic. While 87 percent of KIPP students showed math gains, 63 percent showed reading gains.
The performance justifies the opening of a second KIPP school, which starts next month, KIPP Voice Elementary. A group of about 100 kindergartners will be entering the school. As with the Impact school, these will be mostly students from the Northwest neighborhood chosen by lottery if necessary.
Majdanics ascribes the improvement to the "natural progression" of students and staff knowing each other better. In fact, it's no different than in other high-poverty schools where hard work doesn't show up in test scores overnight.
Sometimes you have to believe your own eyes. Are the students concentrating in class? Are they carrying books home from school?
Long days, hard work
The KIPP day is longer than normal, nine hours a day, with time spent in late afternoon for tutoring, music and PE.
There also are occasional Saturday sessions.
The KIPP Impact school is using music as an important educational tool. Students are learning the value of discipline. Founded in 2010, KIPP Impact will add a seventh grade in the coming school year. In 2013, it will be a full fifth- through eighth-grade middle school. The school is 99 percent African-American and 89 percent free and reduced lunch.
What KIPP is doing is not unheard of in the Duval County public schools. Using Communities in Schools programs, students gain the extra time and attention they need. And there are similarly dedicated principals who through force of will obtain the extra help their students need.
Clearly, this extra time is needed for high-poverty students to catch up and receive the support they need.
All of this time and attention comes at a cost. What would it cost to provide a nine-hour school day for every high-poverty school in Duval County?
That's a discussion this community should be having.
By The Times-Union
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