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Warrington Middle Avoids Closure, At Least For A Year

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The Florida Board of Education on Wednesday voted to give the Escambia County School District an additional year to implement its turnaround plan for the chronically low-performing Warrington Middle School. This means the school will be able to stay open for now, but changes are on the way.

“Every question the state board asked and everything the state board has determined that we need to do is all fair,” said Escambia County School Superintendent Dr. Tim Smith, characterizing the stipulations placed on the district in exchange for the board’s approval of a one-year extension to continue work on improving student performance at Warrington Middle.

“The first one was 80% of the teachers at the school must have three years’ experience and an evaluation of “Effective” or “Highly Effective.” And, that’s a Value Added Model, the VAM evaluation, which comes back from test scores,” Smith said.

Currently, just ten of the school’s teachers are rated “Highly Effective” and 49% are in their first two years of teaching.

“The other piece is that if the scores do not increase or are not at an acceptable level, which what we’re talking about here is the school moving to a letter grade of C,” Smith began. “If the scores are not to that level, then the state board has asked for a new principal to come in.”

Smith is being allowed to wait until new accountability scores are released in July before possibly having to replace the principal.

Meantime, the district also has been directed to find a new provider to deliver coaching and other support services and to secure a charter school to potentially take over operations as part of the turnaround process.

However, the superintendent says nailing one down has not been easy, “That has been challenging in so much as we’ve had some charters to decline the opportunity to come into the school. Since, I’ve been here, there was one and I believe there may have been some previously, who just didn’t show interest in pursuing that option.”

District officials are scheduled to meet with Charter Schools USA on March 30. There are also plans to meet with Learning Sciences International (LSi) which has helped to guide the successful turnaround at Pinellas County’s Lakewood Elementary, which has been the state’s lowest performing traditional public school since 2013.

Looking at demographics, the schools are similar. At Warrington Middle, 85% of its students are from low-income families, more than half are African-American, and about a quarter of them receive ESE services.

The chronically low-performing school in Pensacola was very close to earning a C in the 2018-19 school year.  Now, with about a month and a half to go in this ’20-21 academic year, the superintendent told the Board of Education at their Wednesday meeting in Tallahassee that while the instructional staff is working hard, preliminary performance data is concerning due to COVID.

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Credit Florida Board of Education
Escambia Superintendent Tim Smith appears before the Florida Board of Education at their March 17 meeting.

“There certainly are students who do well on the remote option. But, when you take the groups collectively, we’ve seen disparity between the grades that have been earned,” acknowledged Superintendent Smith. “Those on remote are performing at a lower level than those who are face-to-face.”

Still, as Smith asked for more time to work on their turnaround, some members of the board called for more urgency.

“This school, my good friend John Padgett would say, the barn is burning,” said Board Chairman Andy Tuck, addressing Superintendent Smith.

“This school’s been a D or an F for 8 straight years. Do you really think it’s gonna get better this year,” Tuck asked.

“This year, it’s an uphill climb,” Smith responded.

Despite being pressed to take more immediate actions, the newly hired Escambia superintendent found some support from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

“He’s less than one year on the job,” Corcoran began. “So, far, you can talk to anyone on our staff, myself included, (we’re) thoroughly impressed with how he’s gone out there and aggressively gone and done great things, specific even to this school. It’s a very difficult situation.”

“You know, Warrington has always been a faculty and administration, group of parents and supporters who have not given up in a struggle,” said Paul Fetsko, member of the Escambia School Board in District 2, where Warrington Middle is located. “They don’t lay down and just say, ‘Roll over me.’”

But despite the school’s efforts, there’s only so much already beleaguered students could do to overcome the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

“When a student misses one day of school, there’s some loss to the instructional momentum. If they’re out two weeks being quarantined, that’s a lot of catching up to do,” he declared.

According to Fetsko, Remote Learning, usually reserved for more motivated students, has kept instruction going, but he says it hasn’t been beneficial in terms of closing achievement gaps. He’s now concerned about what’s at stake when the students begin statewide testing begins next month.

“I feel that this year’s assessment would be better utilized as a measure of where to begin next fall, how much regression actually occurred, rather than to say this is where the students need to be and since they’re not at that level, there’s been a failure,” Fetsko explained.

The failure, he says, is that students have not been able to get the best face-to-face instruction, but there’s not much that could have been done about that.

“I’m prayerful that things will go well,” Fetsko said.

“I have hope for Warrington Middle,” added Superintendent Smith, who also called for parents to have hope and confidence that their children are capable of attaining the C grade needed to keep the school open.

“We’re putting some resource in, even more than we have, between now and test-taking time, so we’re going to give it our very best,” Smith declared.

The boost in resources includes five additional staff for small-group instruction, before and after-school tutoring, Saturday school and mentoring from the leadership at Pinellas’ Lakewood Elementary, which is set to come off the low-performing list.