High-poverty schools in Jacksonville, Miami, Gainesville unite to improve student achievement, teacher retention
<table cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=2 width=300 align=right summary="Reading teacher Randi Garlitz teaches first- and second-graders at Williams Elementary School in Gainesville. She says the hands-on professional development training led by Univers…


July 28, 2005



High-poverty schools in Jacksonville, Miami, Gainesville unite to improve student achievement, teacher retention
Reading teacher Randi Garlitz teaches first- and second-graders at Williams Elementary School in Gainesville. She says the hands-on professional development training led by University of Florida education professors in the Florida Flagship Schools network helped her school earn its first-ever B grade in the past school year. (PHOTO BY KRISTEN BARTLETT, UF NEWS & PUBLIC AFFAIRS)

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Fourteen high-poverty elementary schools in Jacksonville, Miami-Dade County and Gainesville are forming a network and partnering with the University of Florida in a no-holds-barred effort to turn around their low student achievement and high teacher turnover.

The rallying cry of network schools could easily be: “We’re mad as heck and we’re not going to take this anymore!”

That mimics a catch-phrase made popular by another “Network,” the 1976 Oscar-winning screenplay in which unhinged television news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) shouts out a slightly more colorful version that has since entered into the language.

Either version amply conveys the resolve of participating teachers, principals and elementary school and UF administrators.

The new Florida Flagship Schools network is forming under the auspices of the Lastinger Center for Learning at the UF College of Education. The center was created in 2002 to mobilize the expertise and resources of UF’s interdisciplinary research community and find answers for one of today’s major social concerns-improving the quality of teaching and learning in under-resourced schools.

The Lastinger Center recently received a major boost in the form of a $250,000 grant from the Wachovia Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Wachovia Corporation, one of the nation’s largest financial services providers. The UF center was one of 18 grant recipients and one of only four to receive the maximum amount offered. The Wachovia Teachers and Teaching Initiative supports organizations that enhance teacher recruitment, development, support and retention with the ultimate goal of increasing student achievement. Grant applications are accepted by invitation only.

With the Wachovia grant, the Lastinger Center is adding six more schools from the Miami-Dade school district to the original eight-member network of Florida Flagship Schools.

The six new South Florida schools are Maya Angelou Elementary, Dr. W.A. Chapman Elementary, Paul L. Dunbar Elementary, Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary, Lenora B. Smith Elementary and West Homestead Elementary. Together, they add 120 new teachers, five new principals and 1,600 new students to the network.

They join four original partner schools in Gainesville-M.K Rawlings Elementary, Duval Elementary, Joseph A. Williams Elementary and Prairie View Academy; two in Jacksonville-Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary and Long Branch Elementary; and two in South Florida-Florida City Elementary and Laura C. Saunders Elementary in Homestead.

 “All of our Florida Flagship Schools have received D or F school grades at some point over the previous five years. Many are making tremendous gains but, paradoxically, faculty and administrators fear that improvement means the removal of state resources and financial support available to low performing schools. These conditions make teacher retention an ongoing challenge,” said Donald Pemberton, director of the UF Lastinger Center for Learning. “Our goal is to improve the educational opportunities and ensure the success of children in underserved communities, particularly African-American, Hispanic, Haitian Creole and immigrant students.”

Nearly 7,400 students attend the network’s 14 schools, with more than 92 percent enrolled in the free-and-reduced-lunch program for children in low-income families. All of the schools are in urban, high-poverty areas. More than three-fourths of the pupils are African Ameican or African Caribbean, 12 percent are Hispanic and about 5 percent are white.

A team of 11 UF education professors is leading the Florida Flagship Schools venture in collaboration with 13 principals and 300 teachers from participating schools. The professors embed themselves in the classrooms at participating schools for first-hand observation and demonstration of experimental teaching methods.

Other Flagship School participants include administrators from the three involved school districts, state and national government agencies, P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, which is the UF College of Education’s laboratory school in Gainesville, and faculty from other UF units, including the College of Business Administration. Teachers and principals from Flagship schools each have their own networking groups-the Florida Teacher Fellowship and the Florida Academy of Principals-that meet regularly throughout the year.

Alyson Adams, program coordinator at the Lastinger Center, said the Flagship Schools Network operates under “a slightly contrarian philosophy that flies in the face of the isolated Ivory Tower traditions of elite academia.”

“We are rolling up our sleeves and going into high-poverty schools and assuming some responsibility and accountability for improving student achievement,” she said. “If a teaching practice proves effective, let’s get it off the shelves and into the hands of educators immediately. If someone invents a new approach that works, that’s great, but let’s make sure our educators and allies find out about this approach. What gets done is a heck of a lot more important than who receives credit.”

No one sought credit when Long Branch Elementary School in Jacksonville received an F grade after the 2002-03 school year. Student performance and school-wide morale had bottomed out, while teacher attrition was atrociously high. First-year principal, Lillie Granger, counted only five returning teachers among her 30-member faculty. After a year in the Florida Flagship Schools network, the school rebounded with a C, and this year Granger said the Long Branch school community is aiming even higher.

“This is the first C our school has gotten, and the few teacher turnovers we had were mainly due to promotions,” Granger said. “After that F, there was a tremendous advantage of being able to connect with other principals and teachers (in the network) who had gone through similar experiences. The best part was seeing what other schools did to turn things around and apply some of those teaching practices in our school.”

UF’s Lastinger Center serves as a central clearinghouse, identifying and sharing the most effective, research-driven teaching strategies and innovations, coordinating joint research projects and fostering the exchange of ideas and experiences among teachers, principals and other school officials in the network. The center sponsors or coordinates several professional development seminars, workshops and summer institute programs, facilitates after-school teacher fellowship meetings, produces video demonstrations of model lessons or teaching practices, publishes a network newsletter and hosts a website for the network schools.

“Rather than face the dilemmas of an under-resourced school alone, educators in the Florida Flagship Schools network will work together to address them. They can learn with and from each other, “Pemberton said.

Randi Garlitz, in her sixth year as a reading instructor at Williams Elementary School in Gainesville, said the Florida Flagship Schools network was a “big contributing factor” in helping her school earn its first-ever B grade last year.

“The Flagship Schools fellowship is unlike any traditional professional development program,” said Garlitz, who teaches first and second graders. “Instead of lectures that go in one ear and out the other, the hands-on input we receive is phenomenal. They teach us to think outside the box and arm us with new teaching practices that we can immediately apply in our classrooms.”

Pemberton aims to make sure those best practices find their way into classrooms throughout Florida.     

“We seek to create a high-impact, research-based model for improving public education. We will share the practices that improve student achievement and teacher retention the most with high-poverty elementary schools throughout Florida and the nation,” Pemberton said. “All schools and communities should be equipped with the strategies and practical tools they need to ensure high teaching quality and student achievement.”

UF education Dean Catherine Emihovich called Wachovia’s grant support for the Flagship Schools network “a tremendous boost to our outreach efforts with high-poverty schools.”

“Part of our mission is built around the philosophy of the ‘scholarship of engagement,’ which encourages our faculty to connect their scholarship and teaching to issues that are important in the lives of families and children in schools and communities,” Emihovich said. “The work of Dr. Pemberton and other education faculty underscores our deep commitment to improving the quality of education across the state.”

By clicking on the link below, you can go online and view the TV news report on the UF Lastinger Center’s Florida Flagship Schools program. The spot was aired Oct. 14 by First Coast News over both its ABC and NBC affiliate stations. This news report was among several that resulted from a statewide Associated Press newswire release produced by the UF College of Education’s News & Publications unit.

Click on the link below to view the news report:

Then, click on the