With new principals at the helm of both the counties’ public schools, Superintendent Steve Lanier is looking beyond the two letter grades announced by the Florida Department of Education last week, which remained as a C for Franklin County Schools and B for the Apalachicola Bay Charter School.
He is confident that while outgoing Franklin County Principal Laurence Pender didn’t manage the grade turnaround hoped for when he was hired two years ago, he did instigate a cultural change Lanier believes will have a lasting impact.
“It’s a challenge, there is no doubt about that,” he said. “He started to change it, he just didn’t have the time. I think it was a bigger challenge than he thought it would be. He made an attempt to change the culture and I think he did, but he had his back against the wall.
“It takes longer than two years, there are a lot of factors you have to consider,” Lanier said. “We have something to build on now. He started something we want to continue on.
“The ultimate goal is an A school, our goal is to be an A school and we’re working on it,” said the superintendent. “The numbers are what they are and obviously we’ve got work to do.”
New Principal Danielle Rosson said Pender’s focus on making learning gains among the lowest performing students paid off, as the school saw two-thirds of those students show gains, an outstanding showing compared to neighboring districts. With an 8 percentage point leap to 42 percent of students at grade level or better in English and Language Arts, the district moved solidly back towards the 50 percent range last seen in 2017 and 2019.
“I know Mr. Pender spent a lot of time on building the culture at the school and focused on learning gains, and we saw some huge learning gains,” said Rosson.
The ABC School, which saw its third straight B grade, posted strong performances in English, social studies and math, part of a pattern of student achievement that Lanier made a point of voicing support for.
“I applaud their efforts, I think they work with their students just as hard as we do,” he said. “With Mrs. Rosson, the first thing we talked about was getting involvement with ABC.
“This is our opportunity to start all over again,” Lanier said. “We want to include them in professional development, and I’m going to make every effort possible to include them.
“We’re going to get the vast majority of those kids (in the high school), we’re going to get them. We want to raise these students in all parts of the county to be Seahawks,” he said, “They’re not the enemy. When you cross county lines, that’s when you get into enemy territory.
“It’s about the whole student concept, you have to create a friendly culture where people care, and now we have a better sense of direction.”
Lanier’s stress on improving bonds with the charter school last year included allowing their teachers to attend athletic events for free, a perk long extended to teachers at FCS.
“We have to include them, they live here, they’re in our neighborhood,” he said.
Rosson echoed Lanier’s viewpoint that now is the time for bolstering ties.
“It’s important for us as a school to build relationships with neighboring schools, or with surrounding districts,” she said. “It’s important for us as educational leaders to share success stories with districts doing things well. If they have something working well and effective, that’s something we need to try.”
Right now as the school year is set to begin in about a month, Rosson is drilling down into the data presented by the test results, which in some cases, such as math in the upper elementary grades, showed some troubling gaps, in which only about one in five students were on grade level.
“We need to continue to work on the math skills with our students,” she said. “We can’t just target our low performing students, you really have to hit all the students. We’ll go back and look and see what information we worked with was accurate and identify what skills were low and high, and target professional development.
“It needs to be specific and it needs to be urgent,” Rosson said. “There needs to be a strong understanding of what’s expected of our students. We’ll have more frequent meetings by departments to sit down and really spend time with students. And there will be an instructional leader coaching piece that can model lessons with them.
“Every school has experts and it’s important to tap into those teachers who are performing well,” she said. “Now it’s important to go and give feedback to teachers.”
Sensitive to the fact that the poverty rate among Franklin County students is greater than that of ABC School, and of neighboring districts, Lanier said he wants to confront the challenges head on and is confident that the new administration is the one to do it.
“I don’t want anyone to think our school is a failure because it’s not,” he said. “I’m disappointed we’re not a B school but I’m optimistic about the learning gains. These are positive gains we can build upon with new principal.
“We did not regress on the top score, we improved,” he said, stressing that a negative perception can work to foster flight from the district and a belief that success is out of reach for students, which is not the case.
“It won’t change until we can flip the narrative and I think the lady we got there now is going to do it,” Lanier said. “Now we have a baseline we can start from. These grades have my attention and they have the new administration’s attention.”
The 2021-22 school grades mark the first full school grade data release since 2019 due to the lack of assessments in the 2019-20 school year and the opt-in nature of the 2020-21 school grades.
The Florida Department of Education examines 11 categories, many directly related to the Spring 2022 test results of the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment), Statewide Science Assessment, and the EOC (End of Course) exams. These tests include the FSA English Language Arts (grades 3-10); FSA Math (grades 3-8); Statewide Science Assessment (grades 5 and 8); and EOC exams in Biology, Algebra 1, Geometry, Civics, and U.S. History.