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Northwest Florida school districts fare well with A and B ratings for 2022-23

Students at Brentwood Elementary in Escambia County.
Escambia County Public Schools
Students at Brentwood Elementary in Escambia County.

The Florida Department of Education this week released district and school grades for the 2022-23 school year. Amid the implementation of new state standards andchanges in the way school grades are calculated, three of northwest Florida’s school districts received A-ratings, while one received a B.

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The school districts in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton counties each maintained A-ratings. Escambia again netted a grade of “B.”

“The word that I used with our staff was ‘keep doing the work that you're doing,’” said first-year Escambia School Superintendent Keith Leonard, adding that he reached out to every school in the district to either congratulate them or offer encouragement. “Don't, let a letter grade put you in a good state of mind or in a bad state of mind right now. Just keep helping for student success each and every day.”

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In Escambia, there were ten “A” schools, with a handful seeing increases in school grades and many schools upholding or exceeding past years’ performances. Also, as expected, grades dropped slightly at some schools.

The school grades for this year are based on the new Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (B.E.S.T.) standards and the new FAST (Florida’s Assessment of Student Thinking) progress monitoring system and don’t fully reflect what each school and their student population scored.

“There weren't any learning gains put into the equation for where a kid entered third grade or entered fourth grade and where they ended fourth or fifth grade for that matter. So it was basically just a baseline year,” Leonard said, pointing out that the percentage of schools that earned an “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” or “F” are statistically equivalent to the 2021-22 grade results.

For the 2022-23 baseline scores, schools may still receive benefits of an increased school grade by qualifying for school recognition or exiting turnaround status. At the same time, lower-performing schools are not subject to sanctions or penalties that would otherwise occur.

That’s good news for Escambia’s four “F” schools at the elementary level, including Montclair, Warrington, Lincoln Park, and the Global Learning Academy. Also, five schools in the district received a letter grade of “D,” including Bellview Middle and the former Warrington Middle, which is now operating as a charter school (Warrington Preparatory Academy).
The location of those low-performing schools in low-income areas reflects the impact of the long-standing, generational issue of poverty in Escambia County.

“When less than 45% of our kindergartners enter the Escambia county public schools ready to learn, that's a problem,” stated Leonard.

To address the problem, the district has been working with early childcare providers, Achieve Escambia, and has a representative serving on the Escambia Children’s Trust.

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The superintendent is optimistic that with all governmental, civic, and social organizations working in the same direction, something can be done to turn the situation around. But he cautions, it's not going to be solved overnight, “It’s going to be a long haul.”

Okaloosa County is one of three districts in Florida to earn an A each year since 2014.

"As a district, we again earned an A-rating,” said Okaloosa Superintendent Marcus Chambers during Monday's school board meeting. “No schools dropped a letter grade, no schools dropped. But we did have ten schools increase their grades from a “C” to a “B” or a “B” to an “A.”

Specifically, Laurel Hill (combined), Edge, and Florosa (elementary) each earned an “A” this year, after having been a “B” school the previous year.

Overall, 14 schools in Okaloosa earned A ratings, while no schools received a D or F.

The district created an “A+” graphic celebrating their performance, as did the Santa Rosa County School District, which also received an “A” for the 2022-23 school year and joins Okaloosa as one of the 16 districts to achieve the rating.

“The school district’s “A” rating is a clear indicator that our students are excelling on the pathway to a lifetime of success,” said Santa Rosa Superintendent Dr. Karen Barber.

Twelve schools in Santa Rosa received “A” grades, with six schools, including Pea Ridge Elementary and Milton High, increasing their rating by a full grade.

Barber touted the district’s efforts to increase learning opportunities for students, including an expansion of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) programs, Career Technical Education, advanced placement, dual enrollment, and fine arts.

The Walton County School District is also celebrating as one of only five districts in the state to have all “A” and “B” schools. Also, 2022-23 marked the district’s fifth straight “A” rating.

As a district that’s striving to achieve an "A," Escambia’s Keith Leonard said he’s looking forward to the new state-required progress monitoring that will enhance what his staff is already doing. But, in the short run, he’s concerned about how helpful the past year’s school grades and testing data will be given their later-than-normal release.

“We're so far into the push and the pursuit of what we're working towards in academic success for this school year," he said. "You don't want to digress, but you got to reflect and see what those scores can tell you and see where you are currently, so that you are improving.”

As for the district’s fourth straight “B,” Leonard maintains ‘nobody wants the status quo.’

“We've got to continue to strive to reach that a high-performing school district. And, that's what we plan on doing,” he declared. “It's a lofty goal, but it is a goal that we believe is within reach.”

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.