Before his first staff meeting with teachers at Englewood Elementary, a then brand-new principal had to dish out a hard dose of reality.
"I had to actually show them, here are the points for the school. When we looked at the score we had to realize we were an F,” said Dr. Rahim Jones, who is now in his second year at the helm of the south Orlando school.
Englewood’s grade was reported by the state last year as a D even though the school had only achieved enough points to earn an F due to a safety net protection put in place by the Board of Education.
"From that point forward we had to realize there's a sense of urgency we need to have here because this is not the story we want to talk about Englewood," said Jones.
And the standing of the school was evident with students too.
“One of the kids came up and hugged me and said. I'm so glad you are here. I don't want to be at a D school,” recalled Jones of an interaction with a fourth grader.
The provision that allowed Englewood to report a D grade when it had actually achieved the points of an F school was implemented this school year. It prevented schools from dropping more than one letter grade from year to year.
As a result schools like Coquina Elementary school in Brevard County, which earned an “F” level of points, is reported as a “B” school for 2013 since it reached “A” status in 2012.
Jones decided to attack the 2012 school year at Englewood like they were an “F” school. The strategy paid off.
Englewood earned a solid C, with 467 points, when anything between 435 and 494 points will earn an elementary school that letter mark.
The points are calculated based on student achievements in reading, math, writing and science as well as annual learning gains for each student, and the progress of the lowest 25 percent of students.
The latter, according to Jones, makes it more difficult for schools that are performing at grade level to move their grade because so many of the students are already performing well.
“When you have enormous contradictions like that where those students are performing very well yet their school comes in as a D or an F, or you have other facts on the ground that show you that the school is really doing well, it makes everybody in the school: the parents, the teachers, the community doubt the validity of the system,” said Kathleen Oropeza, an education advocate from the group Fund Education Now.
The Orlando mother has two children that attend Blankner School, a K-8 school in an affluent area outside of downtown Orlando.
She said the board of education’s decision to allow a one-letter-grade drop protection for a second year in a row was hypocritical.
“I think it was rotten to exempt 150 from that F status, but doom 107 schools to the F status knowing that it was clearly a flawed system,” said Oropeza.
During the July conference call where board members approved the emergency provision, they argued over the validity of the grading system as a whole.
Sally Bradshaw, the former chief of staff for Jeb Bush, questioned letting an F school become a D or C “simply to preserve the self esteem of the adults in that district?”
Another board member, Kathleen Shanahan, referred to the model as “statistically irrelevant.”
“The chairman of the board of education, Gary Chartrand, and several others stated clearly that we are not even sure we are measuring what is real. If you can say that in a public meeting then I think that's a wakeup call that some reflection on what you are doing to the state of Florida is in order,” said Oropeza.
Jones said administrators, teachers and even parents need to approach the situation with honesty about where the school actually stands on the grading scale if anyone wants true change to happen.
He recommended that parents look at whether or not their child made a year’s worth of growth to measure the success of the school.
The one letter grade safety net was applied to elementary and middle schools. High school grades for 2013 will be released in January.
Board of Education members did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.