Polk County Public Schools’ overall district grade dropped to a C this year from a B in 2018-2019, according to school grades released Thursday by the Florida Department of Education. These grades are based on the 2021-2022 academic year.

Tests were canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and school grades were voluntary in 2021. Students remained at home following the 2019-2020 Spring Break and used a hybrid system of online and in-person learning in the 2020-2021 school year. The 2021-2022 was the first year back to full face-to-face learning.

2021-2022 also was the final year that students were measured by the Florida Standards Assessment. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is moving toward periodic assessments throughout the school year.

“Our students and schools have faced tremendous hardships in recent years, but we are clearly moving in the right direction again,” Polk Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid said in a press release. “While we are encouraged by the growth and overall improvement demonstrated this year, we must also acknowledge the fact that our overall proficiency in reading and mathematics remains far too low. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that we remain focused on fulfilling our primary responsibility of ensuring that our students are academically literate and have the necessary skills to succeed post-graduation.”

Heid said the district will use current data to identify areas of need, but added that Polk Schools takes into account more than a school grade.

“It is crucial that we look at subgroup performance to identify needs and where to infuse additional supports,” Heid said. “It’s also unfortunate that our district grade declined, but we will continue to do whatever it takes to make sure our students succeed.”

The Florida Department of Education uses a 41-page document to explain how the state assesses school grades. It looks at everything from student test scores in English Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies to whether the bottom 25% of students improved. For district grades, the state also considers graduation rates, middle school acceleration, and college and career acceleration.

The test also has changed over the years, some say for political reasons to keep scores suppressed so students – and the funding that comes with them – can be siphoned off by private or for-profit charter schools.

FLDOE officials said the school grades for 2021-2022 “defied conventional wisdom and established a foundation for further closing achievement gaps.”

“From Spring 2021 to Spring 2022, it’s clear that our teachers and school leaders used every resource at their disposal to lift Florida’s students well beyond expectations,” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr., said in a press release. “We know that these results are thanks to policies that kept schools open and kept kids in the classroom, which has been widely recognized as critical to student achievement. Today we can celebrate these incredible results, while continuing to support the schools that are struggling.”

Before the pandemic, Polk County Public Schools earned a B in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. Other noteworthy school-grade results released this week:

  • Seven PCPS schools earned an A in 2021-22, up from three the year before.
  • Twelve schools earned a B, increasing from seven the prior year.
  • The number of schools with a D grade dropped from 42 to 18 last year.
  • Only one school received an F – Elbert Elementary School in Winter Haven — compared to eight the year before.
  • Half of the PCPS schools (7 of 14) under state oversight for improvement were able to increase their grades and exit “turnaround” status.

Several schools came within one point of a higher grade, and PCPS is reviewing whether to appeal those cases with FLDOE.

Lakeland schools’ grades ranged from A’s to D’s, depending on the neighborhood and socioeconomic makeup of the students.

“Please keep in mind that state tests are biased, and that generally those test scores are correlated with the socio-economic status of the surrounding community,” said Anita Carson, who taught at Lake Alfred Polytechnic Academy in Polk City until June. She now works for Equality Florida.

“Our educators do amazing things in Florida, even with 20 years of active defunding,” Carson said. “Florida leads the U.S. in slowest rebound in funding since the financial lows caused by the Great Recession in 2008. That’s almost 15 years ago now.”

According to Luke Flynt, a specialist in education policy for the Florida Education Association teachers’ union, public schools and charter schools both earned a similar amount of A’s through F’s, depending on their socioeconomic makeup. Charter schools are public schools but ones that can self-select students and possibly weed out behavior problems and students not making good grades.

According to Flynt, schools with fewer than 50% of students from low socioeconomic homes tended to score A’s, while schools with 80 percent to 100 percent of students from low socioeconomic homes tended to score D’s or F’s. Traditionally, students with high socioeconomic backgrounds score higher because they were more likely to read earlier, have books and computers in their homes, and have highly involved parents.

In addition, students from low socioeconomic households tend to be traumatized at a much higher rate by Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES. Those include violence, abuse, neglect, or witnessing intimate partner violence. They also are shown to live at higher rates with family members with mental health or substance abuse problems, and have instability in the home through parental separation or incarceration, according to preventchildabuse.org.

Griffin Elementary School

Griffin Elementary School | Ebaye

One school that PCPS was keeping a close eye on is Griffin Elementary School.  It earned D’s and F’s throughout the last 10 years. As a turnaround school, if it did not bring its grade up to at least a C, it faced closure. Students there earned a C and the school no longer faces closure.

“We are exceptionally proud of Griffin’s growth and improvement,” Heid said in an email to LkldNow. “The students and staff have been working very hard for several years to get to this point, and their efforts have paid off. Schools face additional pressure and scrutiny when they’re on a ‘turnaround’ plan, so the Griffin family deserves a lot of credit for this achievement. PCPS will continue to provide all necessary support and resources to ensure Griffin’s success.”

Some of those supports and resources include before- and after-school tutoring for struggling students; bonuses to attract some of the district’s best teachers, who are rated either highly effective or effective on their state rating; and a consulting company to help administrators and teachers. District officials said fully qualified teachers were in all core and tested grades. In addition, high-quality professional development is provided.

Griffin has about 30 teachers, but its turnover is not very high. Last year, nine teachers left and this year only five teachers chose to teach elsewhere, retire or leave the profession.

Kindergarten through second-graders are included in after-school tutoring “to ensure sustainability for beyond next year,” including reviews of weekly benchmark assessments.

There also have been several administrative changes at Griffin in the last few years. In April 2020, Tammy Farrens was hired as principal, but Roberta “BJ” Stinson is now the acting principal. Some credit Stinson with moving the school forward.

“A school that has been a D or F for approximately 10 years is now a C, mostly due to the support of the district, a committed staff, and an acting principal who has held everything together when no one thought it could be done,” said Jill Steinbauer, a third-grade teacher at Griffin. “Miss Stinson (is) a rising star in our school system. Griffin is proof of her talent and skill.”

Despite Griffin students’ improvement, most are still struggling in reading, math and science.  Only 40 percent of Griffin’s 52 fifth-graders read at or above grade level, 31 percent perform as well on the state math test and 35 percent on the state science test. That’s well under state and Polk averages for third- through fifth-graders.

Out of the school’s 340 students, 135 have a “substantial reading deficiency,” with 32 scoring a level 1 – the lowest level — on the Florida Standards Assessment, and 37 scoring as low in math. No students were retained (repeated a grade) last year.

At Griffin, Star Data is a computer program used to test students’ skills. As part of Griffin’s 2021 Turnaround Option Plan, the Star Assessment and Star Early Literacy was to be used for grades K-5 to provide a baseline at the beginning of the year. In addition, teachers, coaches and administrators were to participate in collaborative planning sessions. Griffin officials then assess students weekly using Star.

The school develops a theme each year — last year’s was “Building and Constructing.” Administrators also created a modified bell schedule and adjusted recess time, dedicated select rooms for behavior intervention, and allowed each teacher to develop their own classroom positive behavior model that ties into the school-wide recognition program. Students are recognized on a weekly and quarterly point system.

Two other issues at Griffin – and elsewhere throughout the county – are student absences and parent involvement.

Based on 2020-2021 student data, more than 30 percent of Griffin students missed 10 or more instructional days, an indicator that a student could be on a path to fail. School officials redesigned strategies to monitor and improve daily attendance, including immediate calls and emails home to find out why their child isn’t coming to school. The school district hired truancy officers to check on children.

Parental involvement, including reading to children, is shown to be one of the biggest indicators of student success.

“Children whose parents are more involved in their education have higher levels of academic performance than children whose parents are involved to a lesser degree,” according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Parents convey attitudes about education to their children during out-of-school hours and these attitudes are reflected in the child’s classroom behavior and in the teacher’s relationship with the child and the parents.”

But past data shows parent involvement is “very low at Griffin Elementary. Getting parents to take an active role in their child’s learning is not observed. We will work to improve two-way communication so that parents can get a better understanding to how they can help their child improve his/her learning both at home and at school.”

Steinbauer said parental involvement has been especially difficult during the pandemic.

“We are required to call/communicate with families on a regular basis,” she said. “Miss Stinson knows most of the families personally. Many teachers made home visits. One example of community outreach was a very successful Math Night we hosted that many of our families participated in last year.”

If Griffin had not earned a C, its 340 students would have been reassigned to a higher performing school and each one monitored for three years by the district. Griffin would have then been transformed into a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) school or a STEM school with an arts program – or a STEAM magnet academy that would not have an attendance boundary zone and would be open to all students in the county.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at kimberly@lkldnow.com.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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