Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 21st 2014

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Outtakes—Race To The Bottom

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Race To The Top grant of $8,373,647 to the Escambia County School District. The funds were to be disbursed over four years to help improve our schools.

In the application, the district listed Superintendent Malcolm Thomas as “one of ECSD’s major strengths.” Because of the superintendent’s high expectations, change and reform began at the top and cascaded throughout the organization, according to the application approved by the school board.

“In the past two years, the ECSD has taken bold steps to improve the schools,” according to the application. “For example, a low performing middle school was closed and re-opened under new leaders and a new teaching staff with successful negotiations with the union occurring to provide extra compensation to teachers taking on this challenge.”

That middle school was Warrington Middle School, which earned a “C” in 2009 before Thomas reassigned the principal and fired most of the staff. Last year, Warrington Middle sank to an “F” after earning a “D” grade the prior year.

The notion of excellence cascading down to the students simply because of the superintendent’s high expectations turned out to be poppycock.

The 2010 Race To The Top grant was to set up two schools as the models to create a framework for an instructional improvement system for the entire district. The model schools failed to improve

Montclair Elementary was one of the model schools. It dropped from an “A” in 2010 to a “C” last year. For the 2013-14 school year, 51 percent of Montclair’s third graders had the lowest score possible, one on a five-point scale, on the FCAT reading test, and 59 percent had the lowest score in math. Warrington Middle was the other model school.

There is no way to candy-coat this. Superintendent Thomas’s plan failed and millions of tax dollars were wasted.

The public schools in Escambia County will not improve simply by fiat from a benevolent dictator. The federal and state governments and local taxpayers have invested millions and millions into improving Escambia County public schools. We have built new schools, increased school hours, closed schools in the inner-city, recruited tutors and mentors, and put more and more pressure on the teachers. Still the grades are falling.

A more collaborative, open approach is needed that involves all segments of our community and elicits help from those school districts that had success under similar conditions. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just find ones that fit our car.

Egos must be set aside. Repeating the same mistakes isn’t an option any more.

Pull quote: The public schools in Escambia County will not improve simply by fiat from a benevolent dictator.