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Superindendent confident school district improving

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James responds to state rankings

By Pat Faherty

   While the Florida Department of Education has come out with a
numerical ranking of the state’s 67 school districts based on FCAT
scores, Gadsden County has made quantifiable progress that presents a
significantly better picture.
  By some measures, the district is having what may be its best year
ever in terms of student achievement and overall school performance.
 Superintendent Reginald James has questioned the state's ranking, as
have other Florida school district superintendents.
  In a recent interview, he responded to the state’s ranking system
and commented on other aspects of running the school district in the
current economic and political climate.
  Gadsden County was ranked 62nd in the state with a 2011 grade of C.
  Leon County was ranked 24th and Jackson County was 31st. Jefferson
County was 66th and Madison County was 67th. St. Johns County was
ranked number one in the state.
  “I really don't understand how five ‘A’ schools equals 62nd,” said
James. “I guess that is why it has caused such an  uproar with other
superintendents throughout the state.
  “However, I am pleased to see we have improved from our previous
ranking (2005) of 67th.”
  “The method of coming up with a district ranking definitely needs
tweaking,” he added. “I'll take five A’s any day.” (See page 18).
  The Florida Association of District School Superintendents has
taken the position that ranking school districts on FCAT scores alone
is a disservice to the students, parents, teachers, administrators,
other educators, and communities at-large.
   “Ranking school districts using only one of a multitude of factors
that have been proven to affect educational outcomes may not be the
most productive method,” said Okaloosa County Schools Superintendent
Alexis Tibbetts. “All public schools already receive a grade from the
Department of Education based on multiple performance measures, which
provides a complete picture of the true academic success of Florida’s
public school students.”
    For 2010-2011 Gadsden ended up with five A’s, one B, five C’s,
one D and one F. And while Gadsden Elementary Magnet School was ranked
in the top of all Florida elementary schools, East Gadsden High School
was near the bottom in its category. (See related story).
     Regarding the failing grade at East, James said he was not going
to dwell on the past. “I think East Gadsden is having a really good
year,” he said. “I am extremely pleased with the progress they are
making under their new principal, Dr. Kimball Thomas.
      “Everyone who has spoken to me about this school feels the same
way. I believe the Jaguar academics will rise like the Jaguar football
team.”
     With the next FCAT coming up, James was asked how he feels the
schools will do this year and whether the increased cut scores
(passing scores) will affect Gadsden school grades.
    “I believe our principals and teachers are working hard to
prepare our students; and I believe the students believe they will be
successful.”  he said. “The new scores will make it more difficult to
earn an A, but I believe a number of our schools will rise to the
challenge.”
      On the upside, James acknowledged that the FCAT scores have
helped restore some of the pride in our schools. “One of the things I
am most proud of is that for two out of the past three years, our
fourth graders have been Number One in the Big Bend in FCAT writing
performance.”
       The school district currently has a budget of about $65
million and has experienced growth in total enrollment (6,096),
factors in what may be the superintendent’s biggest challenge.
      “Funding remains our biggest challenge,” he said. “Even though
the governor has proposed to add $1 billion to K-12 funding, we lost
$1.3 billion last year.”
      He said four consecutive years of continuously declining funding has taken
its toll on employees and programs. “We no longer offer music and art
in our elementary schools,” he said. “And we have cut more than 150
positions from our budget over the past four years.”
      But funding is a challenge that he concedes has become part of
the education landscape, and it has not deterred his excitement about
the district’s future.
      He believes he has the right leadership team in place  - the
strongest one during his seven years -- from the school level up to
the district office.
     “I believe we are a district that is moving forward, especially
when you consider where we started from,” he said. “We began with no A
or B schools and four D schools. Today we have five A schools and the
district's second largest school is rated B.
  “We began with a graduation rate of 43.1 percent -- it was miserable  -- and our current
graduation rate is 67.6 percent. I consider that progress.”
  Actually it's a figure he takes to heart, knowing it will directly impact the community.
   James said he plans to continue as superintendent, a job he
describes as extremely rewarding, so he can continue to move the
district forward.
   “I think we are just a couple of A and B schools away from being
one of the greatest school turnaround stories in Florida’s history,”
he said. “ I am excited about the future.”