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The Buzz 7/19/12

Dixon Proves Critics Wrong A.A. Dixon Charter School of Excellence wasn’t able to earn higher than a “F,” but the little inner-city school raised its scores more than any other school in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, despite the FCAT test being more difficult and Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and School Board Member Jeff Bergosh constantly attacking the school.

The Escambia County School District saw two of its elementary schools, West Pensacola and Weis, do worse than Dixon. In fact, Dixon’s learning gains in math and reading match the percentage gains at the much-heralded $17-million Global Learning Academy that has had the benefit of hundreds of volunteer hours, including district administration employees.

Rev. LuTimothy May, who chairs the board of trustees of A.A. Dixon, issued a statement when the school grades were released.

“Although our school grade isn’t what we had hoped for, we are very excited at the overwhelming success of the learning gains of our students, “ said Rev. May. “We are so appreciative for all of the parents, community, and business supporters who aid in the successes at A.A. Dixon and we are pleased to be open for another, even more exciting year of learning. The collective dedication to improving the lives of all children does, indeed, take a whole village.”

The Escambia County Public School District did not fare well when the school grades were released. The district ranks 52 out of 68 districts in the state of Florida, putting it right at the dividing line for the bottom 25 percent of the districts in the state. Its 463 points earned the district a “C” grade with only 52 percent of its students reading and performing math at satisfactory levels or higher. Science scores were worse with only 46 percent at satisfactory or higher.

Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties got “A” grades and are ranked 6th and 7th respectively with only two points separating them. Walton County got a “B” and is ranked 28th.

In Malcolm Thomas’ three years as the superintendent of Escambia County schools, the district has earned two “C’s” and one “B.”

Fluff and Stuff Members of the Community Maritime Park Associates’ Equal Business Opportunity Committee met Wednesday, July 11 to digest the final report concerning minority participation in the park project. While the mood initially had the hint of a finish-line celebration, it quickly soured.

“This is a good time,” said Committee Chairwoman Audra Carter. “A great time for us.”

But as the EBO committee began to dive into a packet entitled “CMPA Contractors Academy/Equal Business Opportunity Program Final Report”—which Carter stressed was “just a small piece” of a larger report yet to be completed—collective buyer’s remorse settled over the room.

As they began looking over the report compiled by EBO Program head George Hawthorne, committee members started asking questions about the lack of data. The report itself noted that the figures it did contain were not entirely accurate.

Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds soon began reducing the report to “somewhat incomplete,” “a lot of fluff and stuff” and “a whole lotta crap.”

“Don’t we know who we hired? Don’t we know who was out there working? It’s right across the street,” said Jerralds, motioning toward the new ballpark from the city hall meeting room.

The purpose of the EBO program was to facilitate minority participation in the construction and operation of the park. Hawthorne, and his Diversity Program Advisors (DPA), took over the program in early 2011.

In his report, Hawthorne detailed the program’s background and listed its goals, team members and actions. While reading through a list of 18 actions, committee members continued to question the report.

“Who really cares about this one through 18, anyway?” asked Dick Baker. “What the DPA did or didn’t do is not really important. What was the net result? Did the DBA really do number 13 or not? Who cares?”

Members were disturbed that there was not a firm figure concerning the number of minority companies involved in the project. The report stated that such information had not been made available by MAGI Construction.

“There’s no way of knowing this,” said Committee member Dr. Samuel Bolden. “I think we’re wasting our time.”

Jerralds suggested making a list of information the committee expected from Hawthorne and require him to provide it. Others said they had wasted money on Hawthorne—reportedly 13 payments of $7,500—and should give up trying to nail down the numbers. Bolden compared approaching Hawthorne for the data to “pulling teeth without anesthesia.”

“I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot trying to do this,” said EBO committee member Jason Smith. “It looks like a lot of folks have been paid for essentially doing nothing—I’m looking at Tony McCray, I’m looking at the Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce.”

By unanimous vote, the EBO Committee moved to “receive” but “reject” Hawthorne’s report. The committee forwarded the report to the CMPA board for their review and comments.

After finishing their review of the report, the EBO Committee considered whether or not to discuss a correspondence. Members of the audience were unaware of the correspondence up for discussion.

“It’s George asking for more money,” explained Bolden.

“$3,000,” added Smith, who was by that point hitting the coffee machine.

The committee then collectively rejected the letter. In the letter, Hawthorne apparently requested payment for outreach and marketing activities. Members of the committee, as well as some members of the public in attendance, also discussed how they remembered Hawthorne agreeing to perform the services in question free of costs.

The EBO board also heard from a contractor who expressed concern with the manner in which payments to workers involved in the program were handled. After some discussion, the committee decided to form a task force to investigate the program’s payment system.

In closing the more than two hour meeting—during which a stark light was cast on some concerning aspects of the EBO program—Chairwoman Carter described the session as “probably the best meeting I’ve been to.”

“We did something that was awesome,” she said of the overall effort. “I think it will be a model for other people going through it.”

First Grade and the Long Day The Escambia County School District will be taking a couple of new approaches this next school year in an attempt to help students and schools that are behind the curve. A few of the district’s elementary schools are extending the school day an extra hour, while first graders may be held back if they are not meeting academic goals.

During the Escambia County School District’s regular workshop on July 12, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas described such measures as “game changers” for some struggling students. He also noted that the measures would take time, but would eventually payoff for the students and schools.

“It is not a McDonald’s drive-thru,” Thomas told the board.

In an effort to ensure students are able to read by the time they exit second grade, the district will begin retaining first graders who aren’t meeting certain requirements. Teachers will evaluate their students throughout the year, providing constant updates for parents. Currently, students may be retained in third grade if they are not reading, but Thomas told the board—who supported the measure unanimously—that waiting until third grade was too late.

“For us to say, ‘we’re going to be retaining first graders’ is a big deal,” said school board Chairman Bill Slayton, suggesting that the board work closely with, and request input from, teachers.

A prime component of the first grade retention policy is parental involvement. Teachers will meet with parents in order to give progress reports and to let parents know if their child is falling behind.

“Parent meeting. Love it,” said Slayton. “What if they don’t come?”

The entire board was supportive of upping the level of parent involvement. Some members wondered how such involvement would be ensured. Slayton wondered if the district might be able to hinge a first grader’s graduation to their parents’ participation.

“We can say it,” said Slayton. “I don’t know if we can do it.”

“If we can do it, I’m for it,” said board member Jeff Bergosh. “—we need a stick.”

The superintendent cautioned that some parents would inevitably have issues. He told the board that it would not be fair to punish students for their parents’ actions.

“I also understand the reality of a parent,” Thomas said. “Our time, during a school day, it doesn’t always work.”

Bergosh countered that uninvolved parents may well be slighting their children while sitting at home unemployed, on government assistance. He said that even in unfavorable economic circumstances, such parents are “rich in time” and should be making parent-teacher appointments.

“I’m talking about people working two jobs to make their ends meet,” said Thomas.

“Those people take care of their children,” replied Bergosh.

Later Bergosh inquired if the district had any way of collecting data on which parents constituted the “working poor” and which were “at home just not working.”

“Because I’d like to know,” he said. “They’re rich in time, but poor in money.”

The superintendent told the board that some families have “lots of obstacles.” A member of the district’s staff told Bergosh that such information could not be collected, but said she’d pass along his suggestions.

“If they’re home on SSI,” Bergosh said, “why aren’t they answering the phone, why aren’t they participating?”

The school board was also concerned that holding students back in first grade—and possibly again in third grade—could result in those students being promoted out of eighth grade (before academically ready) due to their advanced age.

“There will be extra pressure to move’em on,” said Bergosh, wondering if the district should mandate an entrance exam for high school.

“I don’t think we start with an eighth grade trigger,” Thomas said, adding that such a measure would result in teenagers stuck in the eighth grade.

The superintendent said that first grade was the opportune time to reach students. He said that students exiting the first grade are expected to be farther along than in days gone by.

“Expectations are higher,” Thomas said. “This is not grandma’s first grade.”

Slayton said that the retention measure should be seen as “positive” instead of “punitive.” School board member Linda Moultrie said that once the district held back some first graders it would “really wake up some parents … we mean business.”

The district will also be extending the school day for some of the elementary schools. Those schools, thus far, include Lincoln Park, Montclair, C.A. Weis and West Pensacola.

“The only way you catch up a student—the research is pretty clear—you need to insert an intervention of time,” Thomas explained.

Principals from the four elementary schools spoke to the board, detailing their various takes on the program. All the principals reported that they were excited about the program and said community and parent feedback had been positive.

“Are the teachers at Lincoln Park excited about the hour?” asked Bergosh.

“They are very excited about the hour,” replied Lincoln Park Principal Christine Nixon.