Rogers Garden Elementary School wasn’t supposed to be half empty.
Rogers should have been a flourishing school, a green-certified school, a school that revived a community. It should have been a school that kept neighborhood kids close to home, a school that attracted parents and families from throughout the county because of small class sizes and added benefits of University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee teaching fellows.
It should have been a model school.
If it had, it wouldn’t have been an option for the Manatee County School District to move kids out of Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary School and into Rogers Garden.
Instead, the school failed to live up to expectations since it opened in August 2009, barely housing more than 50 percent of the students it was built for, and never earning above a D grade from the Florida Department of Education.
So when it came time to consolidate and fill schools in the “urban corridor” – along U.S. 41 in Bradenton – to justify building schools in the growing northern part of the county, Rogers Garden became an easy solution, a solution that barely involved the dreaded, controversial and political redistricting process.
In April, the Manatee County School Board approved closing down Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary, which Superintendent Diana Greene and other district officials said was no longer fit to house students, and moving those students into other area schools.
The majority of those students will find a new home at the newly named G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School, 515 13th Ave W. in Bradenton.
The solution to Orange Ridge’s crumbling facility may have been far different if Rogers Garden had gone according to plan.
The vision I have right now is a bright future for the students that live in the central corridor and any student that chooses to go to the school.
Diana Greene, Manatee County School District Superintendent
So what went wrong? Why didn’t Rogers Garden work the way it was supposed to?
There’s no one clear answer, those involved say. But some theories bubble up:
▪ District-level leaders didn’t support the school and properly address its challenges when it opened.
▪ Families from the area didn’t “choice” their students into the school.
▪ Parents from across the county didn’t want to attend the school because of security and neighborhood concerns.
▪ The community never stepped up to help the school succeed.
Changes in educational theory made USFSM back off from their initial involvement. “We need to do a better job taking care of our own kids. People don’t like to say that. We have to change the dialogue and take some of the responsibility,” said local NAACP head Rodney Jones, whose daughter attended Rogers Garden from the day it opened through the end of fifth grade. “It’s everybody’s responsibility why the school went the way it did.”
A magnet school downtown
Rogers Garden emerged from a “promise.” In 2002, when the Manatee County School District first sold voters on a half-cent sales tax to benefit the district, officials included a number of promises of how the money would be spent, including for new schools.
Originally, then-Superintendent Roger Dearing said the elementary school was planned for west Bradenton. But a contingent of community members argued to have the school in the central corridor instead.
Rogers Garden is Manatee County’s newest school, built in 2009. The school was part of the “promise” from the 2002 half-cent sales tax voters approved for the district.
The traditional neighborhood school in that area, Bradenton Middle School, had been taken over in 1996 by the Police Athletic League to be used for youth programs.
“The people in that area felt they had lost their school; they didn’t consider ORB their quote-unquote, ‘neighborhood school,’ ” Dearing said in a recent interview with the Herald.
But there weren’t quite enough school-age children in the area to justify a traditional school, Dearing said, so the school was proposed as a magnet school, with about 25 percent of its students living in the neighborhood. The rest of the school population, leaders hoped, would be children of employees — for the school district or otherwise — who worked in downtown Bradenton.
The school would boast a low student-teacher ratio, would utilize the latest research and teaching strategies through a partnership with USFSM, and it would be a “green” school, complete with a garden.
The idea won widespread support.
“I think the original concept that was endeared by the board at that time would have been a great concept for downtown Bradenton,” Dearing said.
Dearing retired as superintendent before the school officially opened — although the plaque outside the school lists Dearing as the superintendent at the time — and was replaced by Tim McGonegal.
McGonegal said he’s surprised the school was so drastically under-capacity in the 2015-16 year, and he doesn’t remember the school being that poorly attended when he was superintendent. McGonegal retired from the district in 2012, after huge financial issues were revealed in the district’s budget.
McGonegal couldn’t say why Rogers Garden failed to attract students, saying he felt the school was adequately supported by the district.
Even during tough budget times, McGonegal said, Title I schools were able to fill vacancies immediately and non-Title I schools waited for a bit before filling open positions.
“I remember Rogers Garden having really low class sizes,” he said.
Even though it was in a low socio-economic neighborhood, McGonegal said other schools, like Rowlett, now a charter, were also in bad neighborhoods and were able to attract students.
“I think the district did support them as much as they could. I don’t know, I really don’t know,” he said.
Set up to fail
The first day of second grade for Christine Sket’s son Alex at Rogers Garden in 2009 was a mess. And it never got better.
Sket had hoped Rogers could turn into the type of successful magnet elementary like Rowlett – which has since converted from a district magnet school to a charter school focusing on arts and communication – and Wakeland, the district’s elementary international baccalaureate magnet school. But less than two weeks later, she withdrew her son and sent him back to Williams Elementary in Parrish.
“We knew that neighborhood, all of that we didn’t care about. We wanted to see the Rowlett-style school grow but in a different way, for science. The environmental school, it was a green school,” Sket said.
But knowing the neighborhood, Sket said, the school should have been built with more security features in mind.
Principal Wendy Mungillo should have been given an experienced assistant principal, Sket said, and the teachers should have been recruited from the best of the best around the district.
“There just wasn’t the support,” she said. “There was so much collapsing at once that there was no way.”
Vicky Traynor, whose son Ayden spent less than a week in third grade at Rogers Garden that same year, agreed with Sket’s criticisms. Traynor had been denied entry to Rowlett for Ayden in second grade, and she wanted a more challenging environment for him than Williams Elementary School.
She hoped Rogers Garden would be a good fit.
“After the first day, I did say, ‘Let’s try and stick it out for a few weeks.’ Ultimately it boiled down to the welfare of my own child. I just said, ‘No, you can’t suffer,’” she said.
Traynor sent Ayden back to Williams for the rest of third grade, and he attended Rowlett for fourth and fifth grade. Ayden will start ninth grade at Southeast High School this year.
Mungillo worked as principal for the inaugural year. After Mungillo, Ann Broomes worked at the school for three years, through the end of the 2013-14 year. Then, Latrina Singleton came in and worked for two years until the end of the 2015-16 year.
Jones, who served as the school advisory council chair for the school’s first two years, categorized it as a “tough ride.”
Academically, Jones said he probably should have withdrawn his daughter from the school when the grades never rose, the teachers moved in and out constantly and the school had three different principals in six years.
“I stayed because of my own feeling, my own enthusiasm. I wanted it to work,” he said.
Jones also said the community, including area churches, families and other institutions, failed to live up to promises of providing mentors, volunteer hours and programs when the school opened.
“The community never rose to the occasion for the school either,” he said. “I don’t mind you printing that either; they said it and they didn’t do it.”
One of the biggest appeals for Rogers Garden? A strong connection with USFSM, making Rogers Garden a type of “teaching and learning school.”
District teachers, coupled with students and professors from USFSM, would drive down the student-teacher ratio and ensure students got more one-on-one attention, and were learning using the most up-to-date research-based methods, normally a sure-fire recipe for success.
For USFSM, the partnership with the school district was a great way to examine how teachers are prepared for classroom experiences.
Education schools are always trying to balance what fledgling teachers learn at universities and what they do in practice when they’re faced with a roomful of students, said Terry Osborn, the regional vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at USFSM.
“That’s always tricky,” he said.
At the time Rogers Garden was being planned, the reigning concept for teaching teachers was called “simultaneous renewal,” Osborn said, aimed at continuous education for teachers in the field, helping them use the latest research and methods.
Rogers Garden was designed with small observation classrooms, with one-way mirrors, so that professors and USFSM students could watch and discuss what was happening in the classrooms without disrupting instruction.
Teachers would also get feedback from professors, student teachers serving internships in the school and overall more hands on help.
And then, as it happens, the prevailing models changed. By 2008, one of the leading institutions for simultaneous renewal —the Center for Educational Renewal in Seattle — had closed.
“The pressures on the school and the pressures on the university to move toward outputs models really sort of took the wind out of the sails,” Osborn said.
USFSM did stay involved with Rogers Garden when it opened, as USFSM is involved with a number of district schools, but not in the way it had originally planned.
The rise in charters and school choice across Florida and across the nation probably also didn’t helps Rogers, Osborn said.
“It’s just essentially bad timing,” he said.
Rebranded a new school
When school picks up again on Aug. 10, Rogers Garden will essentially be a school of the past. The physical building and a portion of the original name are essentially all that remains of the district’s newest school. Students will now attend G.D. Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School, a homage to both of the previous school names.
“In my mind, it won’t be helpful moving forward to try to go back and figure out what the vision was,” Superintendent Greene said. “The vision I have right now is a bright future for the students that live in the central corridor and any student that chooses to go to the school.”
As part of the state-mandated turnaround plan because of Rogers Gardens’ poor performance on statewide assessments, the school will run an extended day. The district also must carefully monitor the progress of students who previously attended Rogers Garden, and attend elsewhere in the district now.
Pat Stream, principal at Samoset Elementary since the start of the 2011-12 year, will be a fresh face in the Rogers Garden-Bullock principal’s office. The students will come mostly from Orange Ridge. The teachers and staff are a blend of Rogers Garden and Orange Ridge employees.
Stream began working with her team of teachers over the summer, hosting hours-long lunches outside the school to get the teachers to know each other on a personal level before working together on a professional level.
The “stigma” around Rogers Garden was one of the topics of discussion that came up a lot between the teams, Stream said. But she’s not worried about the stigma affecting the teachers.
“Every teacher who is here chose to be here,” she said. “We’re all working together to get the arrows in the same direction.”
Using the data from the incoming students — which is slightly different than the Orange Ridge data, because not every Orange Ridge student is attending the new school — Stream and her team have set measurable goals that Stream expects to exceed by the end of the 2016-17 year.
In English language arts, Stream expects the percent of students considered on grade level to jump from 18 percent to 28 percent in one year. In math, Stream expects the percent on grade level in math to move from 31 percent to 50 percent. In science, Stream is looking to improve from 20 percent on grade level to 40 percent.
If it meets those goals, the school will move to a high C or low B grade from the state, Stream said, bringing the school out of turnaround status.
“If we go above that, which I intend to do, we’ll be a B,” Stream said.
Low enrollment numbers
Since it opened, Rogers Garden never fully attracted the number of students it was built to hold. For the 2015-16 year, the district moved a number of early learning sites to Rogers, since it had open space. The school was built to hold 582 students.
(special needs students)
EPK-grade 5 total
School grade history
Rogers Garden opened in August 2009, and has consistently been deemed a failing school by state metrics.
Revolving door of principals
Since 2009, three different people have led Rogers Garden.
2009-10: Wendy Acosta
2010-11: Ann Broomes
2011-12: Ann Broomes
2012-13: Ann Broomes
2013-14: Ann Broomes
2014-15: Latrina Singleton
2015-16: Latrina Singleton