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Thomas Legacy Includes Career Academies, Higher Graduation Rates

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Malcolm Thomas served 12 years as Superintendent of Schools in Escambia County, the district’s last elected superintendent. He turned over the reins to the district’s first-ever appointed superintendent in November.

After his departure, WUWF spoke to Thomas about his 3-terms in office and the close of his 40-years in education.

Thomas started his career at Tate High School, teaching special education there for eight years, before joining the district administration in 1987. He was elected as Superintendent in 2008. It hasn’t really hit him yet that his four decades as an educator are over.

“You know, it’s still too new to me. You know, I still find myself paying attention to news stories on education and I feel like I’m still up to date,” he said.

One of the last major issues Thomas had to contend with, as superintendent, was the coronavirus pandemic.

“I wanted to reassure you’re we’re gonna get through this. We are,” declared the superintendent in a press conference on Mar. 12, 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak forced schools to shift to remote instruction.

He calls it the situation the most difficult of his leadership.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Malcolm Thomas addresses COVID-19 issues at a press conference March 12.

“Mainly because there are no good solutions. Nobody can give you straight answers. Nothing really works like people think it would work and we got all these protocols we’re going to follow that are supposed to be helpful. Yet, you really don’t know what you’re working with day to day.

His biggest concern is how changes in instruction are affecting students’ academic progress.

“I think the evidence that I was seeing before I left showing the data for remote students was really starting to have an impact academically,” noted Thomas. “They’re not doing as well. They’re doing okay; they’re just not doing as well as they would have if we’d had them all in a classroom.”

Looking back, when he came into office, Thomas says the district allowed every school to pick their own textbooks and teach at their own pace. Now, there are district-wide standards for each grade level.

Additionally, much event went into improving reading in the district. One turning point was the decision to tackle the issue of proficiency long before students face state assessment in third grade.

“We now monitor students as early as Kindergarten,” he declared. “We monitor them 3-4 times a year. Reading is a big part of that. And, by first grade, if you don’t meet the benchmarks that indicate you’re reading at an acceptable level, you would face retention in first grade. Because that’s when we teach you how to read. It happens in first grade.”

Thomas increasing kindergarten readiness from about 50% to 80% would be a game-changer.

On the other end of the spectrum, Thomas expressed a great deal of pride in their incremental efforts to increase the number of students receiving diplomas.

“When we started in 2008, the graduation rate was 55%, not something anyone was proud of and it took a lot of work by a lot of people to make that academic improvement and along with that you would improve your graduation rates,” Thomas explained.

Escambia’s graduation rate for 2019-2020, Thomas’ last full year in office, was 86.5%, an increase of more than 30 percentage points. The graduation rate for African-American students is 80.7%.

Another top achievement for the outgoing superintendent is the development of career academies across the district. He noted that when he took over, most of the career academies were at West Florida High School.

“Now we have multiple academies in every middle and high school,” he said, explaining that the district now has full school choice, which was a component of academies. “If you wanted to attend an academy and it’s not your zoned school, we clearly let you transfer schools to let you go to the academy and participate. We think that was a big driver in improving the graduation rate.”

Asked about his biggest regret in terms of an unachieved goal, Thomas pointed to school performance ratings.

“My goal was always to push the district so that we were rated as an A by the state of Florida,” he explained. “We made it to B, we made that two years in a row, but never made the A grade. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be in a place where every school was rated C or higher.”

According to the Florida Department of Education Florida Schools Accountability Reports, the district did get close to that in the last cycle in 2019, with just two D-rated schools and no Fs. Thomas acknowledged the impact of poverty in the district, but made no excuses and he applauded the turn-around – from an F to a B school – at Montclair Elementary, which is in one of the poorest areas of the county.

Credit Pensacola High School
Thomas presided over Pensacola High School's 2019 graduation ceremony at the Pensacola Bay Center.

One of the more controversial issues under Thomas’ leadership was school discipline. The Escambia County School District came under fire for racial disparities in school discipline, including a federal  Southern Poverty Law Center complaint, as well as policies and practices that contributed to what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“If you’re asking if African-American students have the larger number of discipline issues, I think that’s probably true,” acknowledged the former superintendent. “And, I think there could a whole variety of reasons we could discuss about that.”

Thomas made no apologies for disciplining unacceptable behavior. However, he said there was no intent to specifically target black students and pointed to district-wide efforts to address the problem.

“As a matter of fact, every school under my tenure had to create a school behavior plan, where they had to analyze the data and break it down by race,” he stated. “They had to try to devise strategies and plans to try to reduce it.”

Among the strategies is the increased use of in-school suspension.

Asked what he will miss most about the job, without hesitation, Thomas he pointed to his regular interaction at the schools.

“I’m going to miss the students,” he proclaimed. “I’m going to miss going into the classrooms. I’m going miss showing up at their productions, whether it’s the orchestra or a third-grade play or a girls’ basketball team playing.”

Thomas said he and his wife will still do some of those things, but he acknowledges it won’t be the same.

Next time, we’ll get the outgoing superintendent’s thoughts on the future of the Escambia County School District.