District tight-lipped as two struggling schools work to improve

Manatee School District video of pep rally at Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary

Southeast High School's drumline and football players visited Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary for a pep rally ahead of FSA testing in 2017.
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Southeast High School's drumline and football players visited Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary for a pep rally ahead of FSA testing in 2017.

The School District of Manatee County has less than a year to avoid losing control of two schools, and district leaders have remained largely silent during the process.

Blanche H. Daughtrey Elementary and G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary, both Title I schools in Bradenton, are working toward a C grade after they received D’s for the past three years.

The state releases school grades during the summer. If they fall short, both schools will contract with an “external operator” to run the schools, according to reports sent to the Florida Department of Education.

The outside agency is required to have “a record of school improvement in turning around schools that are high-poverty and low-performing with students of similar demographics.”

The outcome will affect more than 1,200 students between both schools.

Teachers and administrators are under great pressure to earn a C grade, saving the schools from a transition to outside control, but few people are willing to share the results of the efforts so far.

A reporter asked district spokesman Mike Barber about the turnaround process on Aug. 8. He declined to comment the next day, citing busy employees and the start of a new school year

“The district will be happy to discuss the turnaround status of the schools you are looking into once the new school year is up and running and our more than 48,000 students and 7,000 employees are back in the routine of teaching and learning,” his email states.

On Friday, nearly three months later, district spokeswoman Melissa Parker said the director of school improvement would answer questions.

But school-level employees — those on the front line of every turnaround process — were off limits.

“Our principals are focused on improving the grades of Daughtrey Elementary School and Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School,” her email states. “They have an important job and they’re doing everything possible to work with the teachers and students to achieve a ‘C’ grade. The district is doing everything it can to support those efforts.”

Leaders at both schools file a quarterly “State of the School” report. A request for the reports was not returned by Friday evening, and neither principal would share their obstacles, plans or achievements.

Rogers Garden-Bullock’s principal, Pat Stream, abruptly hung up after answering her school phone on Friday afternoon.

An email to Principal Marla Massi-Blackmore, of Daughtrey Elementary, was not returned.

Pamela Craig, director of school improvement for the school district, then left a voice mail with the inquiring reporter.

“We really would like at this time the focus to remain on what they’re doing to improve their schools, and not have you out their visiting them or talking to them,” she said.

“They’re not trying to be rude, they are just overwhelmed and trying to focus on the positive,” Craig said in a follow-up phone call.

Southeast High School's drumline and football players visited Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary for a pep rally ahead of FSA testing in 2017.

What next?

Daughtrey and Rogers Garden-Bullock had to choose between three backup plans: close, convert to a charter school or contract with an outside agency.

Both schools were required to submit a plan for the turnaround process, ensuring they can transition if either fails to earn a C this year. The Bradenton Herald obtained both reports from the state Department of Education.

The schools chose “external operator” as their backup plan, and the district will have to choose a company by January.

“Hiring an external operator allows the school to make instructional changes that are limited due to the district teacher contract,” according to both plans. “It will provide additional flexibility in scheduling and instruction.”

Along with student success, some teachers are working to protect their jobs. Teachers rated as “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” would not be allowed to work under the external operator.

The ratings are based on two systems: the state’s Value-Added Model (VAM) and the district’s own method.

Pamela Craig, director of school improvement Provided photo

But VAM scores only affect certain teachers, and all teachers are currently rated as “effective” or “highly effective” under the district’s system, according to Craig, the school improvement director.

She said both schools are poised for success, each operating under the direction of solid leaders.

“A new principal with a proven track record of raising student achievement has been placed at the school,” according to Daughtrey’s report. “She has established weekly planning with experienced teachers and coaches who have a record of turning around schools.”

Massi-Blackmore, the principal at Daughtrey, is also heading James Tillman Elementary. She successfully improved the grade at Tillman from an F to a B, and she did the same at Blackburn Elementary School, where she previously worked.

Stream, the principal at Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary, effected better grades during her tenure at Samoset Elementary School. And both schools are now staffed with two assistant principals.

“G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock has a clearly defined plan to improve student achievement,” according to the school’s report. “The school receives weekly district support and quarterly data monitoring.”

Craig said each principal is backed by teachers who often work three to five extra hours per week. They teach Saturday classes, attend weekly meetings, implement new programs and attend regular training.

“Even though they get paid for those extra hours, it’s very toiling for the amount of work they put in for this,” she said. “But both schools seem to be very positive.”

Their plans are similar: track student performance, communicate with families and make changes when necessary.

An extended schedule allows for more reading instruction, and both schools use “Acaletics” programs for math and science. Tutoring and “small group academic intervention” are also utilized.

As the director of school improvement, Craig knows the importance of both oversight and support. She said the district tracks student performance and recommends changes whenever necessary.

“This is a process, and every possible resource the district can provide, we are providing,” she said.

A closer look

Teachers are working especially hard to overcome language barriers.

Nearly half the students at Daughtrey are English-language learners, and the same is true for 32 percent of students at Rogers Garden-Bullock.

In the last three years, English learners at Rogers Garden-Bullock have continually done worse on the Florida Standards Assessments, according to its turnaround report.

Craig said the district is utilizing two products, Imagine Learning and Language Mastery, to help the students.

“We still have students coming in with limited English speaking skills, so we have to bring them up to par as quick as we can” she said.

The schools’ student populations are largely comprised of minorities, meaning those who reported as “non-white,” according to the reports.

Of the 738 students at Daughtrey, 78.5 percent are Hispanic and approximately 11 percent are African-American. At Rogers Garden-Bullock, about 52 percent of the 512 students are Hispanic, and 33 percent are African-American.

Neither report specifies the demographics of teachers or school administrators.

The majority of students are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

And between 17 to 25 percent of the children are enrolled in Exceptional Student Education, a state program for gifted students and students with disabilities.

Both schools also face behavioral problems and absences, though Craig feels they are improving with community outreach.

About 45 percent of students at Daughtrey were recently at risk of not meeting key milestones due to their attendance, the reports said. The same was true for 55 percent of students at Rogers Garden-Bullock.

Last year, 21 students received in-school suspensions and 91 students received out-of-school suspensions at Daughtrey. At Rogers Garden-Bullock, 11 students received in-school suspensions and 62 received out-of-school suspensions.

State, district and school administrators are now working together in hopes of turning the schools around.

“It’s tremendously stressful,” Craig said. “Everything is public. There’s a lot of pressure to move kids quickly.”

Animal Network and Royal Pet Rescue officials visit Daughtrey Elementary School Friday to discuss animal advocacy.