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School grade will determine fate of Warrington Middle School

Warrington MS Outside 1.jpg
Sandra Averhart
When school grades are released this month, Warrington Middle School must earn a grade of C to avoid transition to a charter school.

School officials locally and across the state are combing through 2021-2022 Florida Standards Assessment scores that were released last week.

Now, it won’t be long before the Florida Department of Education releases district and school grades for the year.

Anxiously awaiting is Denny Wilson, principal at the Escambia County School District’s chronically low-performing Warrington Middle School.

“I’m feeling like this is going to be a historic year. I believe that we’re gonna make the C,” Wilson declared.

Prior to the pandemic, the school received a D or F on state assessments for eight consecutive years and must achieve a C or better to avoid being closed and turned into a charter school.

In July of 2021, the State Board of Education gave the school one more year to improve, signing off on Wilson’s hiring and approving an extensive turnaround plan.

“I think we’ve done everything we could think of and more,” he proclaimed. “Really, no stone was left unturned, as far as trying to figure out what we can do to make sure.”

Wilson was given the opportunity to take the top job at Warrington Middle after successfully guiding Oakcrest Elementary School’s turnaround from an F grade to an A.

After taking the job, the new principal put together his administration, establishing what he calls his “dream team,” which includes two assistant principals.

But, he believes the biggest difference-maker for this past school year has been the experienced instructional staff he assembled.

“To me, it always goes back to the teacher; the teacher that is prepared, spends that time, builds relationships with the students,” said Wilson, adding that the State Board of Education required all of the new hires to have at least three years of classroom instruction.

Additionally, the availability of bonuses of $15,000 for top-rated core subject teachers -- and $7,500 for all others -- helped Wilson convince some of the best teachers available to take a leap of faith by coming to Warrington Middle.

One of those was six-year teacher Heidie Chambers, who covers all grades with the school’s Personal Development and Culinary Arts programs.

“Coming from the outside in, I’ve seen these positions posted and there was some reputation that Warrington had,” said Chambers. “But, this year I said, ‘You know, this year, I’m gonna give it a shot.’”

Others like Caleb Lovely, who served as band director and head of fine arts at the school, made the decision to stay at the school.

“I’ve been here for eight years. I came straight out of college and I’ve taught at Warrington ever since. And, I love it, built programs from ground zero,” said Lovely.

Both teachers acknowledged that one of their most important jobs was to stay positive for the students amid intense pressure and outside chatter, especially on social media.

“That really affects them. So, we had no choice but to be positive in here to keep them going and say we got this,” Chambers said.

Lovely has now served under three administration changes and three different mentoring or consulting firms, known as external operators. The latest is Learning Sciences International (LSI). He says a big part of their message has been to let the students know they are in control of their school’s future.

“You’re in charge of how successful we are,” he said. “You’re in charge of the next steps and building the foundation that’s going to continue to build a legacy. And, you have that opportunity to have that honor and glory to prove the naysayers wrong.”

Warrington MS Small Group.jpg
Photo courtesy of Denny Wilson
Warrington Middle School strategically used small group instruction to help boost students' academic performance during the 2021-2022 school year.

In their quest to change the future of the school, students at Warrington have been given assistance on every front and, with the vast majority coming from disadvantaged households, they need it.

The holistic approach to their success includes their own full-time RN, guidance counselors for every grade level, and a full-time bachelor-level social worker, referred to as a navigator.

Academically, the school had fulltime English language arts and math coaches to help meet goals of increased proficiency by 5% (ELA) to 6% (math). Additionally, the school was able to address the academic needs of individual students with small-group instruction.

“Sometimes, especially at that final push, I might be pulling a sixth-grader out of a history course two times a week because I need them for an ELA or math group, so it was very strategic,” Wilson explained.

However, the first-year middle school principal admitted their work to boost academic performance at Warrington was not without its challenges.

Warrington MS Pep Rally.jpg
Photo courtesy of Denny Wilson
Warrington Middle School held a pep rally in the spring to celebrate the end of state assessments.

First of all, he says the pressure to improve has led to an “emergency room” approach to learning. Further, the school year got off to a rough start, with numerous teacher absences due to COVID-19. Also, the school was plagued by a lot of student fighting.

“It wasn’t until that really settled down that I felt like we really started to make a push,” he declared.

Despite the difficult beginning, Principal Wilson said it could not have been a better ending.

“We did an FCAT (statewide assessments) pep rally, after the testing, for celebrating the attendance,” Wilson began.

Also for fun, some faculty and staff played some of the members of the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams. That was followed by an eighth-grade promotion ceremony and an eighth-grade dance.

The state is expected to release district and school grades during the first or second week of this month. As he waits, Wilson has been busy with summer remediation classes and teacher hiring and working to maintain his own positive thinking about achieving the C grade it needs to continue as a public school.

He says the community needs it.

“I want when kids say, ‘I go to Warrington’ to be proud and not have that stigma that’s been on the school for so long.”

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.