The cameras focused on Rhee and Scott, but the school was really the star attraction

When Michelle Rhee visited a Miami charter school on Thursday to announce that Florida would be the first state to partner with her Students First initiative, it may have been easy for most observers to focus on the star power of the event and not the venue. But the reason that Rhee and newly elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott chose the Florida International Academy for their joint announcement is the same reason why the school’s waiting list for seats has more than 200 names.

The school reaches out to an impoverished community, where all students are children of color and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and it delivers on results. In 2002, the state of Florida gave the school a failing grade, based on its dismal core performance in reading and writing. Today, that school has an A grade with a nearly identical demographic, and the majority of its students are now meeting high standards in those subjects.

How it got there exemplifies what Rhee and Scott and President Obama and Arne Duncan have been insisting on: Customizing a public education that best meets a child’s needs, and giving disadvantaged children more educational alternatives than they might otherwise have.

For Florida International, that means following the state’s curriculum standards but constantly redesigning the instruction based on its students’ needs, targeting teaching strategies to the individual student, if necessary, and revisiting those strategies every week, according to Principal Sonia Mitchell, who spoke with redefinED Friday.

“We have 22 kids in a room,” Mitchell said. “We have one, or two or three who really like to read. We have another group that likes to sing or dance. We have another group good in art. We take the same standards and we redesign the instruction so that we either give it to them in music, in dance, in art, or whatever.

“We dig. We look at every student and we look at where they were, and where they are now, and why they’re not where we want them to be, and we design our instruction. To that end, we actually meet every week of the school year. We disaggregate every week, and we differentiate.”

The school’s data shows how it has progressed and, Mitchell says, why demand for seats there has now spiked (data is from the Florida Department of Education’s school accountability reports).

Percent meeting high standards in math:

  • 2002: 20 percent
  • 2010: 69 percent

Percent of the lowest 25 percent making reading gains:

  • 2002: 48 percent
  • 2010: 65 percent

School grade:

  • 2002: F
  • 2005: C
  • 2010: A

Minority rate:

  • 2002: 100 percent
  • 2010: 100 percent

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit