The release of Florida school grades earlier this month was cause for celebration by some charter schools, including several under management by Charter Schools USA. But the grades were a cause for shock, tears and reflection for a number of other local charters.
Charter schools -- particularly those that hadn't been graded before -- were disproportionately represented among the "F" grades for Orange elementary and middle schools this year. But several charter schools also showed major improvements, and one -- Montessori of Winter Garden -- got an A in their first year of grading.
The news wasn't so good for Nap Ford Community School, UCP East, Aspire Charter Academy and Pinecrest Creek, all Orange charters that earned Fs this year, representing four of the county's eight F schools.
Humanities and Fine Arts Charter in Lake and Florida Virtual Academy at Osceola County also got Fs.
At Nap Ford Community School, which first opened in 2001, principal Jennifer Porter-Smith has been through the ups and downs of the state grading system. The school was ungraded for several years before earning an F in 2011. The next year, with an extra hour of school and an infusion of money from a donor, the school rocketed to an A. They didn't get a grade last year, then fell to an F for 2014. The results left some teachers in tears, she said.
"I am not making excuses, but we were unable to have the type of growth we wanted in the group of students who were new to us," she said. Those students entered Nap Ford several grade levels behind, she said, and the extra hour wasn't enough. The school is seeking a donor who could provide $50,000 - $75,000 to help them move their grade back up. Two years ago, the school used a donation to pay for a teacher to provided more personalized help to students.
Ilene Wilkins, President/CEO of UCP of Central Florida, was surprised by UCP East's F because the small school wasn't expecting a grade. The school, which blends students with disabilities in a nearly 50/50 blend with those without, doesn't qualify for an alternative rating for schools serving students with special needs. However, it has a much higher percentage of students with disabilities taking the FCAT than a typical school would. Some of those students struggle greatly with testing.
Wilkins said UCP would appeal the grade, but she expected the rating will go up next year as newer students catch up to grade level.
Aspire Charter Academy is another school with a unique mission, focusing on students with behavioral and emotional disabilities, though the school, like UCP East, is not solely for students with disabilities.
"Our grade is not an accurate measure of our success because so much of what we do is not measured by a standardized test," said principal Pam Schenkel. She said that students' test scores, however, are improving. The school is also embarking on plans to relocate to the Wayne Densch YMCA in Pine Hills, in what school leaders hope will be "a game changer" for the school. Like Nap Ford, they get many of their students by word-of-mouth referrals.
At Pinecrest Creek, director Yasmeen Khan said the school is keeping the grade in perspective. "An ‘F’ grade is not an acceptable outcome for us," she said, but noted that writing scores were a challenge for many schools and that the school's overall score gained 37 percentage points over 2013, before the school could get a grade. "We look forward to another year of progress with these wonderful students,” she said.
Any charter school with two F grades in a row faces automatic closure under state law.
One school breathing a sigh of relief is Renaissance Charter School at Chickasaw Trail. An F in their first year of grading last year, the school skyrocketed to a B this year. Renaissance Charter School at Poinciana, a D last year, shot up to an A. And the Hunter's Creek location of the chain, although not given a grade this year, appeared on track for a "C."
"We are very excited about the progress we made at our schools this year," said Sherry Hage, Chief Academic Officer for Charter Schools USA. She did note, however, that the chain still has a lot of work to do. She said the key was implementing the "rigor" of the CSUSA education model "with fidelity," particularly writing and following individual learning plans for every student, a key component of the Charter Schools USA approach.Copyright © 2015, CT Now