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Manatee County students gearing up for FCAT

BRADENTON — Ballard Elementary student Alexandria Johnson might just have returned from winter break, but there was no slacking off in the classroom Tuesday.

Alexandria, like thousands of other Manatee County School District students on their first day back, hit the books hard preparing for the writing portion of the upcoming Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Feb. 9-11.

“We want to get a good grade,” said Alexandria, age 10, as she sat at a desk with a handful of fourth-grade classmates.

The group spent most of the morning reading and practicing vocabulary with their teacher’s aide, Susan Kesselring.

“They’ve been studying all year round but the clock is ticking now,” said Ballard Principal Mary Bidwell.

As schools prepare for the exam, teachers are working hard to avoid template writing, where students use similar or exact transitions and sentences in their essays on the FCAT.

That’s because in July, the Florida Department of Education sent letters to 12 districts, including Manatee, telling them there was evidence of it on the writing portion of the 2009 FCAT. DOE officials say template writing should not be allowed because every student’s writing should be his or her original work.

“We shared with the teachers, and they are trying very hard to make the point to students that they are giving examples,” Bidwell said. “They are encouraging them to do their own writing and have their own ideas.”

Down the hall in Christiane Petrakopoulos’ classroom, her exceptional education students focused on the theme, Pedal to the Metal, which she created to better prepare them for the test. She chose that theme because most of her students got bikes for Christmas.

“If we want to go fast, what do we do?”

Their response: Pedal.

“We must review what we know and learn all the new things at our grade level,” she said. “So pedal very hard!”

For an otherwise sometimes distracted group, the theme is proving beneficial, said Petrakopoulos, who sat down with each of her students and talked about the importance of FCAT preparation.

It’s also helping them concentrate, she said.

“I’m ready to battle,” said one first-grade boy as he practiced writing phonetics on a piece of paper.

In addition to writing, the FCAT also includes math, reading and science exams.

The state began grading schools in 1999 in an effort to raise student performance. In the past, schools have been assigned a letter grade, A through F, based on exam scores.

But this year, the FCAT only counts for half of the school grade. The other 50 percent consists of other factors, including graduation rates and students’ participation and performance in advanced courses.

Despite that, teachers say they aren’t changing the amount of time they spend preparing for the test.

“Everything we do every day is devoted to lifelong learning and our focus is that they understand the material,” said Lincoln Middle School math teacher Amanda Price.

“If they understand the material, the FCAT will be just fine.”

For those students who struggle as they prepare for the test, a 21st Century after-school program is available at some schools including Lincoln and Southeast and Palmetto high schools. It offers tutorials to help students with academics, including their homework, said Louis Robinson, the district’s director of accountability.

And if a child’s school does not offer the program, Robinson encourages parents to work with students at home.

“Provide as much print-rich, age-appropriate material in the home as possible including magazines and library books,” Robinson said. “Anything that encourages reading.”

Because the more a child reads, he said, the better they write.