Manatee officials hope the top 25 schools in Florida can help them get on top

Manatee officials hope the top 25 schools in Florida can help them get on top

chawes@bradenton.comFebruary 8, 2012 

MANATEE -- Make every minute count for an instructional purpose. Make time for teachers to collaborate with each other.

Make decisions that are based on student data. Get your students’ parents involved. And build a staff that is “single-minded” in their focus on student achievement.

Those are the five main themes Manatee district officials will be emphasizing to their elementary school principals after consulting with the state’s top 25 elementary schools.

“No one school has it all,” said Joe Stokes, Manatee’s director of elementary education, who led the polling effort conducted last week. “But you have to figure that if it’s something that’s going on in multiple places, that provides us some guidance.”

Stokes said the five themes emerged most often in his conversations with principals of Florida’s top-rated elementary schools. They also parallel some of the keys to success at Witt Elementary, a Manatee school that ranked the highest of all elementary schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Witt ranked 82nd out of the state’s 1,800 regular elementary schools. Witt Principal Myra Russell said extensive parental involvement and following the county’s core curriculum, including making use of benchmark testing, are two of the keys to her school’s success.

“You can see members of our parent-teacher organization here almost every day,” she said. “Parents do fund raising, they meet with our staff to find out what they need, and they are very involved in our decision-making.”

Russell also emphasized having a loyal staff with a shared focus on education as the top priority.

Making every minute count sounds obvious, Stokes said, but it actually requires careful planning. For example, he said, the state’s most successful elementary schools make an extra effort to ensure that special programs always have educational value.

Ensuring teachers have time to collaborate with each other is also a planning challenge. Stokes said many top-rated schools arrange for their teachers to meet for collaborative planning while kids are attending art, music or physical education classes.

Basing instructional decisions on student data often means identifying where kids need more work and focusing on those areas across the curriculum, Stokes said. For example, if students are weak on multiplication, top-rated schools ensure that all classes -- including art, music and physical education -- have math practice build into their content.

Strong parental involvement means not only keeping parents involved in planning and activities, but also fostering a positive attitude among parents toward the school, Stokes said.

“A genuine connection between home and school has a positive influence for the benefit of the students,” Stokes said.

Finally, Stokes emphasized the importance of focusing staff on education. It’s a seemingly obvious point, but Stokes said top-rated schools helped foster that “single-mindedness” by explicitly encouraging their teaching staff.

“The principals weren’t going around saying, ‘Hey, I did this or that.’ They definitely were thinking and feeling that they were part of a team,” Stokes said.

The exchange of information about best practices among elementary schools is exactly what State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson and Gov. Rick Scott sought to inspire when they decided to rank the state’s districts and schools, said Cheryl Etters, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education.

The information on schools has been collected for years, but only this year has it been assembled in simple ranking systems. Scott and Robinson initially came under fire for ranking schools because the rankings are based only on test scores and do not take into account socioeconomic factors, such as the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch programs.

But Etters said Stokes’ polling of top-rated schools is an example of “starting a conversation” about education, one of the goals outlined by Scott and Robinson.

“That’s exactly what we were hoping would happen,” Etters said, “that districts would share what works and try to replicate it.”

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