The long drought is over. For the first time since 2011, the Flagler County school district is A-rated again. The drought ends seven straight years of Bs, after a four-year streak of As before that. Twenty-four of Florida’s 67 districts are A-rated, 54 are either A or B rated.
Belle Terre Elementary regained the A it had relinquished in 2016. Indian Trails Middle School, the district’s perennial A, kept its usual grade (Indian Trails has been an A school 13 of its 14 years), and iFlagler, the virtual school, was an A again, as it was last year. Only five districts in the state improved from B to A this year (Alachua, Dixie, Orange, Taylor, and of course Flagler.)
Anna Crawford, the principal at Wadsworth Elementary for two years, and LaShakia Moore, the principal at Rymfire Elementary for just over a year, were overcome when they spoke with Superintendent Jim Tager: their schools had improved from C to B. Tager had appointed both principals. His tenure is barely two years old. “They both work very hard,” Tager said of two of the five principals he’s appointed during his tenure. “They were both in tears when I called them. They were like, are you sure that’s my school?”
Both the district’s high schools maintained their B, Flagler Palm Coast High School for the third year in a row, Matanzas for the fourth year in a row. Imagine School at Town Center, the district’s last surviving charter school–a publicly funded but privately run school–maintained its B for the seventh straight year. Old Kings Elementary also maintained its B.
There were two C-rated schools in the district: Bunnell Elementary and Buddy Taylor Middle School, both at C for the fourth straight year, though Buddy Taylor missed getting to B by less than a point.
School grades carry considerable influence–critics have often said too much influence–beyond bragging rights: the state awards the higher-performing schools and districts “bonus” money based on those grades (last year Indian Trails and iFlagler got $100 per student for their A rating), and, as Tager noted, people with children in school often decide where to live based on school grades.
“Of course we’re thrilled that the district is now recognized for the great work that we do,” Janet McDonald, who chairs the school board, said. “I hope that the good work of all of the staff across the district, from administrators and service providers and professionals from the classroom and professionals in every other area of their school and any other staff member you can think of, they all played a part and I hope they’re all recognized and thanked for the team effort. I look forward to celebrating at our meeting publicly, probably in August.”
Those grades are based on up to 11 components, according to the state Department of Education, from achievement components (results on test scores, for example) to learning gains (how well students in the lower quarter of proficiency showed improved scores year over year) to graduation rates to accelerated learning (such as those in Advanced Placement courses, IB courses, dual enrollment, industry certification, and so on.)
“Each school had areas of strength and improvement,” School Board member Andy Dance said.
Analyzing Flagler’s numbers, Tager said accelerated programs played a significant role in pushing the district up, as did the much-improved graduation rate and the learning gains. “Across the board we were good,” he said.
School Board member Trevor Tucker credited the staff and students, but also noted this: “We’ve had a lot of turnover in superintendents and now we have a superintendent I believe who’s really, really focused on academics,” Tucker said. “He’s brought some changes that have made a difference. If you start looking at it, he’s made the changes that are making the difference.” He singled out the graduation rate and the district’s 21 flagship programs, focused on trades and professions, which are engaging students to stay in school more and graduate in larger numbers.
Ironically, Tager is entering his third and possibly final year, as he will be required to take at least six months off when the deadline for his retirement comes due. The school board next week will be discussing his future–whether to search for a permanent replacement or seek to bring him back after six months, with an interim in between. “Hopefully we can find someone as good or better or maybe we can get him to come back,” Tucker said.
Indian Trails Middle School stands out for its long streak of A’s and its standing in the state as one of the best-performing middle schools. It has some 200 students who attend out of their own zone, under the school choice banner, but it’s close to the district average in free and reduced lunch, the indicator for poorer students, which suggests that the school is not self-selecting its way into an upper crust of better-prepared or more privileged students.
What keeps producing those grades? “Phenomenal, passionate educators,” said Paul Peacock, Indian Trails’ principal, today. “They really build relationships, pay attention to detail, and they just–they’re just passionate about helping kids. The grade as it is, it’s humbling to me. But for their sake, I’m just very appreciative that they get the recognition for the amount of effort they put forth every day.”
Peacock was the district’s principal of the year in 2018. He said he’s been able to hire 85 to 90 percent of the staff at his school since his appointment there in 2011. He explained the school’s success in more details: the school has always done well in accelerated learning and improvements in lower-quartile grades. “So acceleration points, our gains we make with our lowest quartile kids, and just the learning gains in general: I don’t think people understand how strategic we really are, down to the kids,” Peacock said. “It’s not like a general number, but it is, little Johnny is currently at this particular level. In order for him to be successful in the learning gains, we need to get him to this level. It’s not haphazard, I can tell you that. It’s very strategic.”
Then there’s management style: “I give our guys a lot of autonomy to be able to make decisions. To me, they’ve earned it, year after year when they’re producing the way they are. It’s a lot easier to just let go and let them do their thing,” he said. “Again, to me, hiring and finding people that have that gleam in their eye: you can just see that they care about kids. They’re going to do the very very best they can to ensure their kids can have the very best education we can possibly provide.”
As for Flagler’s grades, “there’s still work to be done, hopefully we can get all the schools to A or B,” Tucker said.
Tucker had a special interest in the statewide grades released today: he joined a company called Educational Management Consultant Services, a company run by Jerry Copeland–a contractor with Flagler schools who is the district’s management-side negotiator with unions at collective bargaining sessions. The company runs schools that have failed two years in a row, assuming a district hires its services. Tucker is in sales: he just landed two such contracts in Duval County. He says he recuses himself on any decision involving Copeland locally, and would not seek out such contracts in the district.
“If I was a school board member, I’d be mad that we had a D or F school,” he said. “No, I would never go after anything in Flagler County.”
Not a single traditional Flagler school has had an F since grades have been part of the state department’s accountability system. Flagler Palm Coast High School has had two D’s in 20 years, Matanzas had a D in its inaugural year, but in the past 10 years, no traditional school in Flagler has been below a C, and most have been in the A-B range–a remarkable achievement in itself.
Statewide, the number of A schools totaled 1,172 in 2018-19 compared to 1,043 in 2017-18. The percentage of schools earning an A increased to 36 percent, up from 31 percent in 2017-18, with 51 percent of Florida’s charter schools earning an A, compared to 32 percent of traditional public schools.
At the lower end of the scale, 21 of 26 F-rated schools last year improved by at least one letter grade.
Flagler County School Grades, 2005-2019
|Bunnell Elementary||A||B||B||A||A||B||B||A||B (C)*||A||B||C||C||C||C|
|Belle Terre Elementary||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||B||B||B||A|
|Old Kings Elementary||A||A||A||A||A||B||A||A||B||A||A||C||A||B||B|
|Rymfire Elementary||B||A||B||C||A||A||B (c)*||A||B||B||B||C||B|
|Indian Trails Middle||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||B||A||A||A|
|Buddy Taylor Middle||B||A||A||A||A||A||A||B||C||C||B||C||C||C||C|
|Flagler-Palm Coast High||C||B||C||A||D||B||B||B||A||B||B||C||B||B||B|
(*) In 2013, the state Board of Education agreed to pad grades in such a way as to prevent them from falling by more than one letter grade. More than 20 percent of schools benefited from the padding, including Rymfire and Bunnell elementaries in Flagler, whose grades would have been a C if the actual standards were applied.