While school leaders stress year-round about school grades and the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, one tiny North Central Florida district may have it all figured out.
Gilchrist County School District was the only one of the state's 67 school systems to get an A grade in all of its schools this year, and Superintendent Buddy Vickers said it's the only straight-A district in the history of Florida's school grades.
The grades, based on student FCAT scores, can make or break a school's reputation, and while A schools are rewarded with bonus money, repeat F schools face a risk of losing students to higher-performing schools and giving up electives to instead offer remedial courses.
At first glance, Gilchrist's victory could be shrugged off as an easier feat than getting straight A's in a larger district with more schools and more struggling students. The rural district between Dixie and Alachua counties has just four schools totaling about 2,900 students; that's one-tenth the size of neighboring Alachua County Public Schools. There are two combined middle and high schools, Bell High and Trenton High, and two elementary schools, Bell Elementary and Trenton Elementary.
But the small county has much the same makeup of its larger counterparts, with about half of its test-takers falling under the "economically disadvantaged" classification and about one-third of them with disabilities. The first year FCAT tests came out, in 1999, Gilchrist's scores were nothing to brag about: the district had three C's and a D.
After that first tough year, Gilchrist County's grades steadily increased, topping off at three A's and a B each year for the past three years.
The straight A's were a long time coming. Just ask Vickers.
The superintendent said the secret to the county's success is that a number of pieces came together after years of work, including an aggressive team effort that involves year-round student performance analysis, professional reading training for every teacher, even book studies for administrators.
"We're a very data-driven school system," Assistant Superintendent James Surrency said in a conference call with The Sun. "We look at each student's performance from one year to the next, but we also look at their performance in between."
The district regularly tests students to gauge which classrooms need work on a specific topic, explained Trenton Elementary Principal Jean Ledvina. In fact, a team of administrators requires that school-based data-analyzing teams report to them each month with a list of areas that need improvements.
The progress-monitoring isn't a flat pass/fail assessment, said Janet Bradley, the district's curriculum director and reading specialist. She said the district uses "diagnostics" in reading, for example, to determine whether a child is struggling with reading fluency, with vocabulary, with phonics or a number of other specifics.
And for Exceptional Student Education, or ESE, students, who have disabilities, Director of Special Programs Mary Bennet said integrated classes have helped the students make gains they probably wouldn't have made in secluded classrooms.
The district also tightened the focus of its curriculum, not teaching to the test, but rather teaching to the Sunshine State Standards, which are Florida's education requirements. If sections in textbooks address topics that aren't part of the standards, teachers stopped teaching them to instead focus on what's required, Bradley said.
"That was probably one of the toughest challenges, getting the teachers away from (teaching everything in the text)," she said.
Even with all those administrative efforts, Vickers said, "You can have all these pieces in place and still not make gains. It all boils down to what happens in the classroom. Our teachers have bought in to this, and I think the results are clear."
Not to take teachers' role in the district's performance for granted, Vickers said the school system takes a portion of its budget to pay bonuses to good teachers, in addition to bonuses issued by the state. Gilchrist's in-house bonuses are based on how principals grade the teachers in their performance. The state bonuses are tied to FCAT scores.
The reading and math FCATs are the only tests that count toward school grades, but Trenton High Principal Lynette Langford said it's not just reading and math teachers who are working toward getting A's. She said everyone - even physical education teachers - has training in teaching reading, and they work it into their programs.
The staff stressed that the hard work is about much more than the FCAT. When the test is over in March, they don't slow their pace for the rest of the year. "Literally, we turn around and we're back to work 15 minutes later," Vickers said.
They're trying to prepare students for the workforce of the future, which means they're continually working to improve their career academy and set up more partnerships with community colleges. They're also studying up on what's new in education, Vickers said, with book studies on topics like the global economy, the flat Earth concept and other forward-looking texts.
There's a banner that hangs in each of Gilchrist's four schools that puts their mission into words: "Gilchrist County Schools: an A school system with the vision of being world class."
Though small, and though rural, they're planning to keep their students on the cutting edge of education.
Gilchrist County School District is a publicly funded organization
No. of Schools: 4
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