Three days before Hillsborough County schools open their doors to students, the Florida education commissioner visited two elementary schools in the district to applaud their improved performance on the FCAT. But, as he told WMNF’s Roxanne Escobales, the commissioner had a stark message for area schools: teaching just to pass the FCAT is the wrong path to travel if schools want to achieve excellence.

ACT: Palm River went up 109 points (applause)

That was Hillsborough County Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia this past Friday at a back-to-school rally for the district’s 18,000 teachers. Elia announced to the audience that Palm River Elementary, a Title 1 school, achieved what most low-performing schools dream of: the students scores on the FCAT improved so dramatically that the school’s overall state grade rose from a D to an A.

Today, three days before county schools open their doors for students, John Winn the Florida education commissioner visited Palm River to praise the school on its achievements. WMNF caught up with Winn after the event to talk about his views on learning. He said that Palm River’s success was due to programs it implemented that focused on the whole child rather than on training the students to pass the FCAT.

ACT: if you spend all day on remediation drilling practice that’s the lowest level of instruction a lot fo people think that because the test has gotten so much attnention, that’s all happening in schools – in some schools there’s too much of that and my message to those schools is you’re on the wrong road.

Hillsborough County Schools superintendent Mary Ellen Elia agreed with Commissioner Winn but she did not discount the FCAT altogether.

ACT: fcat not end all and be all of what happening… but gives us the opportunity to see how we’re doing… and that’s a great thing.

At the end of the 2004-2005 school year Palm River elementary’s state grade hung towards the bottom of the scale with a D grade. Principal Lillian Wagner describes the challenges teachers faced with the student population.

ACT: high percentage of foster students… diverse mixture of cultures… students come from families that don’t often have high level of education… \ many working two or three jobs to put food on table so it’s very hard to help with homework and come to school for conferences… we often are main caregiver for our kids

After the last school year, Palm River ranked as an A school, and in doing so received an additional 50,000 dollars of incentive money. Principal Wagner attributes the turnaround to new programs she implemented such as the early morning breakfast reading sessions where parents and guardians had the opportunity to read with their children before regular working hours. Also, additional employees provided much need support, such as a full-time reading coach and an aid to help with the limited English proficiency program enrollment because the school has many immigrant students.

WMNF asked Wagner what prompted this new direction.

ACT: Part of it was the district’s direction met during summer, planned out curriculum, calendar, pretest and post test to see when kids mastering, then did further instruction on poor scorers and moved on with the rest, so custom instruction…

Despite the success stories and the education commissioner’s encouragement to teach beyond standardized testing, some Hillsborough county teachers still are not sold on the FCAT as was evident after last Friday’s rally in downtown Tampa.


Hillsborough County School Board district 4 member Jennifer Faliero told WMNF that the FCAT is based on the curriculum and there is nothing on the test that students shouldn’t already be learning. She would like to tell teachers who complain that pressure to perform on the FCAT limits their creativity to buck up.

ACT: there are certain things that have to teach, find a creative way to do it. Quit complaining, find a creative way to do it.

The FCAT is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. John Winn the education commissioner is the first in his post to be appointed by a state board of education whose members were in turn appointed by Governor Jeb Bush rather than elected by residents. Winn also was Governor Bush’s former education policy analyst. But due to an overlap in terms, the next governor of Florida will get to appoint new board members in his last year in office, effectively tying his hands when it comes to reforming education policy.

Winn told WMNF that he believes so strongly in the direction of Florida schools under his guidance that any future governor, whether Republican or Democrat, would be convinced to keep his policies in place.

ACT: I have always believed that the basics of the road we’ve been on in terms of improving student achievement can and should a bipartisan effort. No dobut various points of view gub cand re a+ plan… someone who does not recognize value we’ve put into education… confident with some briefing, those views will be modified.

For WMNF news in Palm River, Tampa, I’m Roxanne Escobales

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