Manatee school district's strong response to education turnaround

June 13, 2013 

While there were a number of bright spots in Manatee County FCAT scores, the school district still recorded marks below the state average in math and reading. Yet most students performed better on the math test compared with last year's scores, and eighth-graders topped the state average on math with 55 percent passing compared with the state's 51 percent.

A few days after scores were released, Superintendent Rick Mills unveiled a sweeping reorganization aimed at improving student achievement to bring the district out of its low ranking -- 47th among the state's 67 school systems.

Statewide, test results were flat this year, and Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett declared the marks "unacceptable." As the state transitions to the more complex Common Core standards next year before full implementation in 2014-2015, test scores are expected to fall as students and teachers adjust.

Manatee County challenges are great after a long year of turmoil, but Mills and his new team are moving quickly to recover from the district's budget shortfalls and to institute a new system to improve student skills.

As outlined Tuesday during a meeting with school personnel at Braden River High School, the superintendent plans to form instructional leadership teams, professional learning communities and school data teams at each school.

The teams will work to establish consistency among schools, with Mills pointing out the lack of uniform instruction in classrooms. Furthermore, schools operated with "unlimited autonomy" without clear direction.

"Coordination from one end of the room to the other is not happening," Mill observed. "We are a district of schools but not a school district."

That clarifies the fundamental problem that existed before Mills became superintendent less than three months ago. The district couldn't raise student achievement with each school following individual paths.

Such weak management is a thing of the past now. Strong leadership and direction is needed.

And accountability will be in demand with Mills implementing quarterly reviews at the district, department and school levels. School personnel are on notice that improvements are expected.

In the fall, the superintendent plans to take the district to the next level by composing district and academic plans. Each school will be directed to write a five-year plan with assistance from top district administrators.

After a year of dealing with the fallout from a financial catastrophe, audits and system breakdowns, the focus on education is most welcome. This community demands improvements in school performance and student achievement. Mills' "theory of action" looks like a strong appoach to lift the district up.

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