The Learning Curve: F to A


WUSF News is taking a year-long look at Florida's education system. The first report in our series 'The Learning Curve' takes us to Tampa, home of Just Elementary School. Just is an 'F' school, one of 82 in the state.

Just Elementary is housed in a three year old modern-styled building tucked behind the North Boulevard public housing project in the shadow of downtown Tampa.

Shaneciya Bulmer is one of 700 kids who attended the neighborhood school last year. Nearly 90 percent of them come from poor families. Those ratios are about the same this year.

Dressed in the school uniform, a white polo shirt and kaki pants, she climbs the stairs to her class.

It will take a lot of effort this year for Just Elementary to climb out of cellar. This is the second time in three years it's been labeled failing by the state. Preparations for its ascent started long before the first day of class.

Teachers and staff were brought back early for extra training, planning and to visit their students at home as the summer vacation wound down.

Melinda Hipley teaches special needs children. This year, she plans to shape her lessons around her students' interests whether it's Sponge Bob or Michael Jordan.

Engaging instruction is one of three keys to transforming students and turning around test scores says Just Principal Tricia MacManus. The second key to success, says MacManus, is using data in a more systematic and individualized way. Teachers will assess students weekly and if progress is lagging, they'll intervene early with tutoring and mentoring.

Yet, McManus, says the most important key to the turn around is building a sense of community.

In the past, we have been so focused on academics we have not spent a lot of time in this area. So, we're doing a lot with something called the responsive classroom, MacManus says. It's an approach. You are looking at the social needs of our students just as much as the academic needs because they go hand in hand.

Bringing parents and students into a more welcoming school setting will be accomplished with gatherings like the free breakfast planned once a month by Tony Dungy's All Pro Dads program.

Just School Resource Officer Wayne Moore says there's also a new discipline policy: no suspensions. They need to understand that every time they get into trouble they're not going home, Moore says. They're going to stay here and learn.

There is a sense of family even on the first day back. Fourth grader Shaneciya Bulmer finds a familiar face as she enters her classroom. It's her third grade teacher, Alicia de la Torre. Keeping kids and teachers together through multiple years is part of a new philosophy.

State education officials will be monitoring Just Elementary's push to improve student scores noting what works and what doesn't.

WUSF will be checking in on Just Elementary throughout the school year.

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