A new direction for Florida school turnarounds

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart addresses the Florida Board of Education during a turnaround discussion Monday.

This spring, Florida’s smallest school district launched an unprecedented turnaround effort led by a charter school organization.

But Jefferson County schools may not be alone for long.

On Monday the Florida Board of Education asked three North Florida school districts to revise plans to turn around long-struggling schools. It was the first batch of turnaround efforts the board reviewed under a sweeping new law.

The revised plans could soon bring charter school operators to other high-poverty rural communities.

Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 7069 last month. It overhauls the turnaround options available to schools that earn F’s or multiple D’s under the state’s grading system. Districts now have less time to turn those schools around themselves. If they fall short, they have three options:

  • Convert the schools to charters.
  • Close the schools.
  • Bring in other external operators to run the schools. This could include a district-run charter school overseen by an independent board.

Most public schools avoided the new law’s consequences. Stewart noted repeatedly that, of 42 schools that presented turnaround plans last year, 71 percent improved to C’s or higher.

Monday’s state board meeting offered a glimpse of what could be in store for the remaining 29 percent of persistently low-performing schools if they don’t improve, quickly.

Charter could be coming to Gadsden

Gadsden County sits on the banks of the Apalachicola River, on the other side of Florida’s capital city from Jefferson. The high-poverty district is Florida’s only county with a majority-black population.

This spring, facing financial pressure, it combined its two high schools. Both East and West Gadsden High Schools have long languished with D’s and F’s. Over the past six years, they’ve mustered two C’s between them.

The new combined high school could potentially become a charter under a revised plan the board approved Monday.

An addendum to that plan says:

Gadsden County School District’s primary turnaround objective is to assist Gadsden County High School in reaching a “C” accountability grade by the end of 2017-2018. The district plans to do this with the assistance of an external partner for the 2017-2018 school year. In an effort to be proactive in the event that the school does not reach a “C”, Gadsden County School Board will develop a contingency plan for the high school to become a charter school. After the 2017-2018 school year has started, the district will begin its search for an appropriate charter school operator that has evidence-based experience effecting turnaround change for a district with similar demographics to Gadsden County. By January 2018, the district should have selected at least three charter school operators for the Gadsden County School Board’s consideration.

Overhaul in Alachua

The state board voted to reject a turnaround plan by the long-struggling Hawthorne Middle/High School. If it were a charter school, it likely would have shut down in 2014, when it received a second-straight F. Since then, it has earned a string of D’s.

The Alachua County school district presented a plan to turn the school around the with help of an external organization — the University of Florida Lastinger Center.

But Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said that plan would not fly under the new law. She noted a district could ask for an extra year to turn the school around itself. The new law allows that option if the board decides the school is likely to improve to a C. However, Stewart said: “This is not a situation where they’re close.”

As a result, the district will have to return with a plan based on one of the three options the new law allows.

Local resident Heather Surrency-Bristow told the board the school is the backbone of a rural community southeast of Gainesville. For years, it’s fended off threats of closure. Now, she said, enrollment is up and the culture is improving.

“This has stirred up a Hornet’s nest,” she said, a reference to the school’s mascot. If the district finds an option that keeps the school open, she said, “We’re going to be great again.”

What will happen in Hamilton?

Hamilton County’s only high school has gotten nothing but D’s or F’s going back to 1999, save for a single C. And Stewart said, like Hawthorne, it seems unlikely to break that pattern in the year ahead.

Superintendent Rex Mitchell told the board he’s made changes in the rural district. He consolidated three elementary schools to save money. But he said the district has other challenges. It’s home to few private employers. Its teachers often have to live in other counties due to a lack of housing. And yet he’d managed to replace many of the high school’s teachers and hire a new principal.

Those local conditions made state board member Tom Grady skeptical about bringing in someone other than the district to turn around the school.

“What charter operator, what external operator, what manager are we going to get embedded in this community who can earn the respect of the community and be able to be effective in turning around that school?” he asked. “I just think that’s really challenging.”

Mitchell’s plan to improve the high school “sounds a lot like what we’ve been saying we want,” Grady added.

If Hamilton High turns things around during the upcoming school year, that raises another question. It would have to pick a charter school organization (or some other external manager) before the spring. But it might find out next summer that its grade has improved to a C. If that happened, it would no longer need to bring in a charter operator, but it would already be under contract.

“I don’t think a charter operator could possibly come in and do the work necessary, then sit back and wait to know what the grade is,” Stewart said. “We would have to have a charter contract in place well before school grades come out.”

It might take a contract lawyer to sort that out.

Languishing schools

The three schools addressed by the state board this week had something in common. They hadn’t just had a bad year or two. They have struggled academically for years.

A judge recently rebuffed a wide-ranging lawsuit that criticized the quality of Florida’s public education system. But he noted that persistently struggling schools gave him pause. The state House cited Judge George Reynolds’ warning when it crafted its Schools of Hope plan.

In an ironic twist, the plaintiffs in the case — who are suing the House, the Senate, and the state’s executive branch — have seized on that warning, too.

The Florida constitution demands a “high quality” public education system. But during oral arguments this morning, the state’s lawyers told three judges on the First District Court of Appeal that there is basically no meaningful way for a court to decide whether the state has met that standard.

Jodi Siegel of Southern Legal Counsel, arguing for the plaintiffs, disagreed. She said it was “astounding” that, if schools were allowed to languish with low academic performance, “that doesn’t have any bearing on ‘high quality.'”

“The system is failing for many students,” she added.

Neither side mentioned that the system has just changed dramatically — at least where persistently struggling schools are concerned.