Duval and Rawlings leaders ready to meet challenges head-on


With the Florida Department of Education watching, two new principals have started work on leading Duval and Rawlings elementary schools back from the disappointment of being labeled F schools in 2008-09.

At Rawlings, former Terwilliger Elementary Principal Beth LeClear takes the helm with this blunt motto: “There are no excuses.”

“My philosophy is we teach every minute of every day with ferocious intensity,” LeClear continued.

She said she has seen firsthand what can happen if there is a loss of focus and a slip into complacency. In 2006-07, her first year at Terwilliger , the school earned an A grade for student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, then slipped to a C in 2007-08 before regaining an A last year.

At Duval Elementary, Donna Jones is three weeks into her first year as principal at the magnet school for the elementary fine arts program, whose state school grade dropped from an A to an F.

Like Rawlings, Duval has a high student poverty rate – with approximately 90 percent on free or reduced lunch.

And like LeClear at Rawlings, Jones says none of that can be used as an excuse.

“I know there are challenges here,” Jones said. “But I firmly believe children, no matter where they come from, have the ability to learn and to be successful. I operate under the opinion that there are no excuses.”

Both said they are asking more of their teachers, students and parents.

Jones said she wants more parent volunteers and more students to participate in the Title I-funded after-school tutoring program.

She said discipline and attendance are also issues. She wants to cut down on out-of-school suspensions and the number of students who miss part of the instructional day because they are dropped off late in the morning or picked up early in the afternoon.

That missed learning time and not taking advantage of available tutoring hurt the school’s FCAT performance, Jones said.

Last year, 45 percent of Duval’s students scored at or above grade level in reading and math, compared with more than 70 percent in each subject in 2007-08. In science, the percentage of students at or above grade level plummeted from 61 percent to 10 percent and the percentage of students making learning gains also dropped across the board.

Jones said all of that needs to be addressed, and she is confident FCAT scores will turn around this year. But she added that there is more to the Duval community than a standardized test could ever show.

“Schools are more about what happens on a day-to-day basis in a learning environment than just test scores,” Jones said. “We know these scores, the accountability piece, are paramount, but I am more interested in striving to create an atmosphere where students are excited about learning.”

At Rawlings, LeClear also speaks of the sense of community at the neighborhood school, where there are no school buses and students walk to school from five nearby housing complexes. She said during pre-planning week, Rawlings’ teachers walked the neighborhood to make sure children were signed up for school.

While some say too much rides on the FCAT, LeClear said she welcomes the pressure and the amount of weight the lowest quartile of students carry in a school’s grade.

“It is high stakes, but we really have to concentrate to meet the needs of every child in the school,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Under the Department of Education’s new school accountability system, which combines FCAT scores with the more stringent criteria of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Rawlings and Duval were two of 16 district schools that fell into the state’s second most severe Correct II category. Because they received F grades from the state, they face more state intervention and oversight than the other schools.

A DOE team makes campus visits, reviews student assessment tests during the school year and provides professional training for principals and teachers, Deputy Superintendent Sandy Hollinger said. Hollinger said the state team, to this point, has been supportive not punitive with the schools.

The high free and reduced lunch rates at the schools also have allowed them to tap into Title I funding, which has brought in subject coaches in math, reading and science to offer additional training to teachers. Test and assessment data are continuously reviewed, and students who are identified as struggling in core academic subjects get additional tutoring in those classes during the school day.

“These schools appear to be right on target now,” Hollinger said. “But we will have a very good feel for it in the next couple of weeks.”

By Christopher Curry
The Gainesville Sun