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More 'A' Schools Across Region; Significant Progress In Escambia

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A review of school grades issued by the Florida Department of Education for 2018-19 shows increases in student achievement across northwest Florida. Based on the scores, the Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton school districts each earned a district grade of A.  The Escambia County School District earned a B grade overall, for the second consecutive year.

“I’m proud that 92 percent of schools are rated ‘C’ or higher; 92 percent! I have not been able to say that since 2012,” proclaimed Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, feeling good about the district’s performance with just one more year to go.

“Significant progress is being made,” is his response to a question about what the district’s headline should be. “I don’t think you can look at school grades and come up with any other conclusion. We have zero F schools. We’re down to four Ds from 14 last year. Even our critics would look at that and say that’s progress.”

That progress includes 12 A schools and 11 B schools, three more than last year in each of those columns.

This is the district’s best performance since the final FCAT year in 2012.

Thomas believes his teachers have had time to adjust to the expectations of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).  He also credits a combination of classroom initiatives for the district’s gains.

Number one on his list is school officials' ability to monitor progress in the middle of the year.

“We have good tools for teachers so that when we conduct a mid-term assessment, we can trust the validity of that test. It tells us where students are,” Thomas said.

He points to the benefit of 10-day data reviews, which allows them to look at information and change lesson plans while we’re moving through the school year to adapt to the student. Additionally, the district is using computer software that’s adaptable to student strengths and weaknesses for both Math and English Language Arts (ELA).

Deep diving into the data, the district made the most headway in the area of achievement gains in Math and ELA in great part, according to the superintendent, because there continues to be room for improvement.

“You know the story of how few of our students come to kindergarten ready to learn. Those numbers are terrible. And, so that’s where we start,” Thomas explained. “So, we have students two and three years behind, and that will follow as we move forward through their elementary years. So, we have to move a student more than a year in a year’s time.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas recently stopped by WUWF to discuss school grades for 2018-19.

Thomas points to two key demographics – as the primary factors for the educational gap in the district.

“In Escambia, with our diversity - and particularly our poverty, those are issues that our teachers have to wrestle with that are very real,” said Thomas. “The trauma in some of the homes that we serve are not conducive to strong academic performance, so most of the work that happens, happens inside the walls of a classroom."  

Such is the case at the four Escambia County schools that are chronically low performing and each received a D grade, Holm Elementary, Workman Middle, and Warrington Elementary and Warrington Middle.

Listen to Sandra Averhart's entire interview with Escambia School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas about the 2018-19 school grades.

“Of course, the Warrington schools…Warrington has been a long standing issue for us,” said Thomas noting the effort and energy district officials have put into trying to turn the schools around. “And, by the way, Warrington Middle needed to score 41 points overall to get a C. Their 40.111, had they reached 40.5, it would have rounded. They would have gotten their C. They’re very, very close.”

The superintendent was quick to note that "close" doesn’t count, but he’s optimistic that both the Warrington schools can make the target grade of C next year.

He says Holm is different type of school, in that 40% of the students that attend are special needs students. Still, the measure of their academic proficiency counts the same.

No excuses from Thomas, who says they’re utilizing a variety of tools and strategies to help those students who need it most. That includes careful monitoring where students are and holding them accountable. Another tool is the ability to personalize learning for each individual student.

“Last year, we began a program called i-Ready, which is a computer product. We use in grades K-8 and it is adaptable,” said Thomas. “You start out by taking a diagnostic assessment and it knows where you are. And, then it has a built-in curriculum and as you move through, you can move faster or slower depending on the response of the student.”

Their focused efforts have helped Montclair Elementary steadily improve from an F in 2016 to a B this year.

Credit Santa Rosa County School District
Santa Rosa County School District
Santa Rosa School Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick.

Meantime, the Santa Rosa School District will be conducting a comprehensive review of the deficiencies at its two lowest performing schools, King Middle and Hobbs Middle, both of which earned a C.

Overall, though, there’s much to celebrate in Santa Rosa, as the rest of the district’s 27 schools earned A’s and B’s. That’s 16 A’s and 9 B’s.  Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick noted that - again this year – the school scores calculate to a district grade of A.

“What I most want to celebrate with regard to the ‘A’ ranked school district is since school districts have been measured, every year except for one we have been an A,” said Wyrosdick. “That’s just a legacy of tremendous performance and I believe it goes to the tradition of excellence that Santa Rosa demonstrates in their schools.”

In Santa Rosa, there was an increase in points earned across the board, including ELA, Science and Math. Wyrosdick gives much of the credit to the district’s partnership with Discovery Education’s STEAM Innovate Program.

“Our teachers have been involved in training over the past four and a half years, that has really centered their work in both instruction and learning by students on how students collaborate, communicate, how they think creatively and how they think critically.

According to Wyrosdick, the district has found a formula for success that ties high performance on standardized tests with a classroom culture that promotes purposeful learning for students; helping them understand why they’re learning what they’re learning.

In the statewide rankings, Santa Rosa finished in the top ten, tied for ninth with Collier County. Okaloosa ranked sixth in the state. Walton finished seventh.

Nearly 70% of Okaloosa’s 36 schools received A’s, while 97% were A or B. There was just one C school in Okaloosa. Walton County doubled their number of A schools from five last year to 10 this year, with three of its 14 schools earning a B and one getting a C.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.