Turning around Clewiston’s ‘F’ school

Since the state’s release of school grades for elementary and middle schools in July, Hendry County Superintendent Paul Puletti has begun a revitalization of the district’s worst-performing school, Clewiston Middle School (CMS). The revitalization began from the top down, with former Principal Garry Ensor moving from the school to the district’s administrative offices; a move which many people close to the school say was “necessary” and “the right thing to do.”

CMS seemed to be in disrepair when Superintendent Puletti stepped in, with complaints of the school’s grounds not being kept and issues of cleanliness and safety inside the school emerging.

A source who works at the school said any parent or visitor could see the school wasn’t kept up and believed the reason was, in part, Ensor.
“He wasn’t out and about. He didn’t get out of his office and investigate. It seems like he got lazy and just started not caring. He’s more of a ‘yes’ man than a ‘no’ man, but sometimes you gotta say ‘no,’” said the source.

However, Ensor was well-liked at the school and by the community. Current CMS Principal Scott Cooper said he was nervous about his reception at the school because of how popular Ensor was with the students.

“The principal here before was popular, a nice, nice person. I was apprehensive about my welcome,” said Cooper, who was called out of retirement by Superintendent Puletti to take the job just two weeks before school started on August 19.

Despite his apprehensions, Cooper was well-received and has seen tremendous support from the school’s staff and students.

Though school has been in session for less than two weeks, Cooper has already begun making noticeable changes around CMS. Those changes include revised parent pick up procedures and what Cooper called an “organized” clean-up procedure to address the school’s cleanliness and safety issues.

Assistant Principal Kristi Durance, who began at CMS as an eighth grade teacher two years ago, said the atmosphere at the school is completely different since Cooper started as principal.

“The atmosphere is upbeat. The kids are happy to be here and the teachers are happy. The teachers are working as a whole team now,” said Durance enthusiastically.

Cooper, however, realizes that these “superficial” changes may boost morale, but they won’t impact what the state wants CMS to do, which is progress from an “F” school.

Cooper said the public doesn’t have a good grasp on what it really means to be an “F” school. Not only is it disappointing to high-performing teachers who are now “branded” with that “F,” said Cooper, but kids and parents are branded, as well. Cooper said he is trying to “reawaken positive feelings” of who the students and teachers are of CMS.

Then there is the bureaucratic baggage that comes with being an “F” school. Cooper explained that, though good things have come to the school because of its grade, including money and skilled staff — albeit with many strings attached — failing again is not an option. If CMS receives another “F” grade in 2014, the state will, more or less, assume control of the school.

“We’re right on the edge as an ‘F’ school,” said Cooper. “If we’re an ‘F’ school a second time, we lose a lot of freedom on how we operate the school.”

Cooper is confident that the school will turn around this year and avoid second-year sanctions.

How does Cooper plan on turning the school around? Besides his morale boosters, Cooper has implemented changes to the students’ math and science curriculum, a “bell to bell” learning plan and daily “morning sweeps.”

The changes in math and science allow students who score a “3” or higher on their FCAT Math to be enrolled in pre-algebra, rather than regular math. Pre-algebra, Cooper explained, is a high school level course and has not been taught at the middle school level at CMS. Students who score a “1” or “2” on the FCAT Math will take regular, middle school-level math courses or remedial courses.

This accelerated option is part of a new three-year plan. Sixth, seventh and eighth grade students whose FCAT Math score is high enough will take pre-algebra this year. Next year, multiple algebra courses will also be available for students who took pre-algebra this year. In two years, geometry will be available for those eighth grade students who have taken pre-algebra and algebra. All three courses are high school-level courses, therefore, students could potentially have three high school credits under their belt before they enter high school.

This option will also be available for science courses, as well, with students taking advanced physical science if their FCAT Science scores are “3” or above.

Cooper said the accelerated option offers students challenging curriculum with an added side benefit: extra points towards the school’s score from the state.

The second change Cooper has implemented is the “bell to bell” learning plan. Simply put, as soon as the bell rings and signals class to begin, students should be learning and teachers should be teaching. That means attendance must have already been taken and any bureaucratic details gotten out of the way.

This rule ties into Cooper’s “morning sweeps,” which entail CMS’ three administrators — Principal Cooper and Assistant Principals Durance and Vance Johnston — visiting each classroom to make sure teachers are present and giving “quality instruction”. Cooper said he wants to see active learning in the classrooms, meaning students are engaged and doing the majority of the work. Cooper explained that to an outsider looking in, it should be obvious the students are active in the learning process.

Another change students and teachers will see at CMS this year is a different approach to discipline. Cooper said CMS has an abnormally high suspension rate and kids cannot learn if they are not present. Cooper explained the administrators will treat minor misconducts as minor, and will expect teachers to handle their own students’ behavior problems in the classroom, with less “yelling and screaming” than has been seen in the past. Cooper wants to see the CMS staff being “polite and professional” not only to students, but to parents, as well.

With less than two weeks into the school year, and students, parents and teachers already seeing and feeling changes around the school, it seems Cooper is well on his way to transforming CMS. Whether or not CMS will move up from its “F” school status is yet to be seen.

“We’ll take everything in bite-sized chunks,” said Cooper, “and implement the most important things first.”

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