Classroom. Credit: Getty Images
On his reelection campaign trail, Gov. Ron DeSantis touts Florida’s public education system, boasting about higher starting teacher salaries, restricting certain conversations on race and gender in classrooms and siding with parents instead of local districts in disagreements. What’s rarely discussed is a sad reality involving poverty and race in the state’s most troubled schools.
Year after year, dozens of schools are identified as “persistently low-performing,” meaning that state test results, graduation rates, and other key measures are dismal enough for a school to be considered on the brink of failure. Many of the students, including minority children, live in poverty.
But on the campaign trail, it’s rare to hear DeSantis discuss these schools or how the state is assisting them. And the stakes are high, with concerns that a generation of students could fall behind in their academics at the persistently low-performing schools.
Sen. Tina Polsky, a South Florida Democrat who has served on the Senate’s education committee, told the Phoenix that she’s never seen DeSantis discuss the persistently low-performing schools. Meanwhile, he touts such initiatives against so-called “woke ideologies” in schools.
“I’ve never seen him go to these schools,” Polsky said. “If he doesn’t care, why should anyone else care?”
Persistently low-performing schools
Almost annually, the Florida Department of Education releases a list of schools that have struggled to reach satisfactory “school grades,” part of an A to F grading system that judges public schools in Florida.
A “persistently low-performing school” is one that “has earned three grades lower than a ‘C’… in at least three of the previous five years that the school received a grade and has not earned a grade of ‘B’ or higher in the most recent two school years, ” according to the law and state documents.
This summer, the department sent out a memo to district superintendents notifying them of 100 Florida public schools — out of 22 individual school districts — dubbed “persistently low-performing” for the 2021-22 school year.
Florida has 67 traditional school districts, and state data report that there are 3,697 public schools in total.
It is a preliminary list because schools and districts have time to appeal its school grade. It is not clear when the final list will be released.
For the 2021-22 school year, the Hillsborough County School District in the Tampa Bay area posted the most schools labeled persistently low-performing, with 21 schools on the preliminary list.
All of those Hillsborough schools are elementary or middle schools, save one K-8 school.
Polk County in central Florida is next, with 12 schools persistently low-performing. Then it’s Escambia County in the far west of the Panhandle with 10 schools that are persistently low-performing, and Duval in Northeast Florida with nine schools.
Meanwhile, larger districts in South Florida have fewer schools on the list. Broward, for example, has only four schools considered persistently low-performing. And the largest school district in Florida, Miami-Dade County, only has one school — a middle school — on the list.
It should be noted that A to F school grades were suspended in the first year of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and school grades were voluntary in 2021 as the state worked to recover.
The number of schools identified as persistently low-performing in a previous school year, 2020-21, was 159 schools. However, the inconsistent reporting due to the COVID pandemic makes comparative analysis difficult.
So how do schools go years and years struggling?
Darzell Warren, president of the Escambia Education Association, says it’s complicated but part of it comes down to the experience of teachers and teacher turnover.
“What I am seeing that seems to be consistent: You have inexperienced teachers that are placed in in these schools, so, you are not having the experience that is needed,” Warren said.
“When there’s a possibility for some of these teachers to transfer out, they are,” she said.
DeSantis has been pushing to boost raises for starting teacher pay in order to recruit new teachers into the profession. And recently he has pushed for alternative teaching routes that allows military veterans to bypass part of the educator certification process.
Florida teacher unions, such as the one in Escambia or the statewide Florida Education Association, feel that those policies do little to help veteran teachers feel valued in the profession and claim that some experienced teachers are leaving due to feeling disrespected by state policies.
“Trust me, we have some awesome new teachers who come in with fresh ideas and able to hit the ground running,” Warren told the Phoenix, “but we also have a lot of teachers who are coming in, who are going to alternative certification routes, and they do not have the background as far as dependability and everything.”
She also noted factors in students’ home lives that may contribute to lower academic success.
The 100 schools listed on the 2021-22 persistently low-performing schools have anywhere from 78 to 100 percent of students who are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
“You might not have the support, the parental support, from parents because they couldn’t help their children. And it wasn’t that they did not care, it was because they didn’t know how to help them academically,” Warren said.
Most of those schools also have a high percentage of minority students, according to the state data.
Warren continued: “So when you’re living in the situation where the parents aren’t able to help the students at home, then it’s left, you know, or teachers to try to get it done at school. And when you are behind coming into school, and there’s that constant trying to catch up, catch up — it makes it difficult.”
Efforts to improve
Sonya Duke-Bolden, a communications staffer with the Duval County School District, told the Phoenix that the district has reduced the number of schools labeled persistently low-performing over the last couple years.
“The number of schools we have on the persistently low performing list has decreased by almost 60 percent from 22 to 9 since 2018-19,” Duke-Bolden said in an email to the Phoenix.
She noted some of the efforts to decrease the number of persistently low-performing schools in the district.
They include creating a learning plan for struggling students, providing educators with additional resources such as support specialists and coaches, and engaging with community support programs “to provide small group instruction,” among other measures.
And the situation has not gone completely unremarked by the DeSantis administration.
In summer 2021, the governor’s office sent out a press release announcing $44 million in federal funds called the Unified School Improvement Grant (UniSIG) that went out to the lowest performing five percent of schools.
Most of the schools that received UniSIG funds were on the state’s 2020-21 list of persistently low-performing schools.
There are other statewide efforts that, while they are not focused on persistently low-performing schools explicitly, may assist some of the schools and students in these areas — such as a new law that creates a home book delivery service for elementary school students who are struggling to read.
The idea is to boost early literacy to better set up students for their future academic career, the Phoenix previously reported.
However, Polsky, the senator from South Florida, noted that even though she has been on the education committee, there is not much discussion about those persistently low-performing schools in the Legislature.
“Sometimes we have presentations like that, but we really don’t have the opportunity for discussion and troubleshooting. It’s not, unfortunately, what we do,” Polsky said, “even though we probably should.”
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