This teacher rocks … in a charter school

Teacher Julie Sear looks on as her students at The School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee, Fla. test out a Rube Goldberg contraption they created.

Teacher Julie Sear looks on as her students at The School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee, Fla. test out a Rube Goldberg contraption they created.

By all accounts, she’s a top-notch science teacher. She works in a charter school. Is that a coincidence? It’s a tough question to answer, even for the teacher herself. But more and more educators are mulling similar questions. It’s inevitable as more school choice options bloom, and teachers, like parents, find themselves thinking more deeply about what works best for them and their students.teachers and choice logo

Julie Sear is the lone science teacher at The School of Arts and Sciences, a K-8 charter school in Tallahassee. It’s trim and modest, a clutch of red and yellow brick nestled among oak-draped hills. There’s no library, no gym, no lunch room, no computer lab. The school is so unassuming and half-hidden beyond all the moss, even many locals don’t know much about it.

Which is too bad for them. Last year, 95 percent of Sear’s students passed the state’s eighth-grade science exam (it’s only given in fifth- and eighth-grade). That’s double the state average. Only 29 of the state’s 600-plus middle schools managed a pass rate above 80 percent. Only 10 cleared 90 percent.

It’s true the demographics for the 270 students at SAS aren’t the most challenging. Forty-one percent are minorities, 21 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. The state average is 59 percent for both. But it’s also true SAS leaves more affluent schools in the dust, including three in the same district where science pass rates came in at 58, 66 and 75 percent.

What makes the difference?

Sear, 42, is a 14-year teaching veteran who taught in district schools before she joined SAS, for less pay and no tenure, in 2006. She’s a Midwesterner with a biology degree, a resume that includes six years on a boat and enough proud geek in her to wear a shirt that says, in Star Wars font, “May the Mass Times Acceleration Be With You.” (Physics joke!)

Ask her the difference-maker question, and she offers a list.

For starters: independence, autonomy, flexibility. Unlike many district schools, there is no pacing guide at SAS, no rigid calendar that dictates what must be taught and when. Asked a week before a reporter’s visit what she’d be teaching that day, Sear emails back: “I can’t plan that far ahead!!” “I have total control,” she says in an interview. “I look at all the standards and I get to say where I’m going to teach things, and how I’m going to teach it.”

Then, there’s this: SAS is small and close-knit and … nimble. It was founded in 1999 by teachers and parents. It’s not bound by convention. Sear has 88 students in classes that include sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. That means a wider range of skill level. But it also means more familiarity with how students learn, where they’re coming up short and what can get them up to speed. “I got a pulse on them that is really strong,” Sear says.

SAS is also tough to get into. Not because of special admission standards (beyond living in the district, there are none), but because of demand. Every year, more than 200 students apply for 15 to 20 open slots, leaving the school with 750 to 1,000 on its waiting list. That, Sear says, leaves SAS teachers with leverage many district teachers don’t have.


A Matchbox car. A tack taped to its hood. A trio of middle school boys.

In Sear’s first period, a project: Make a Rube Goldberg contraption with at least five energy transfers. Boy one nudges the car towards a balloon, which butts up against one of those pendulums with a series of spheres on strings, which is next to another toy car, which is tracked towards a marble, which is then supposed to dribble off the edge of the counter into a cup on the floor. Car rolls. Balloon pops. Pendulum swings. The second car rolls, but stalls before it can ram the marble.

“Not enough force,” Sear says. “What can you do different?” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Charters, magnet schools, Common Core & more

Charter schools: The Tamarac city commission seeks charter proposals for a high school. Sun Sentinel. A Bradenton charter school caters to young boys. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

florida-roundup-logoMagnet schools: A proposal to reopen two Pinellas County elementary schools as technology magnets receives strong support from the school board. Tampa Bay Times. A Hillsborough County middle school STEM program lets students work on robots. The Tampa Tribune.

Technology: The Broward school district is teaching students not just how to use technology, but how to build it. Sun Sentinel.

Board of Ed: The state Board of Education welcomes new members. The Buzz. The board approves the cut scores high schoolers must achieve on the new U.S. History end of course exam. Palm Beach Post. 

Education commissioner: Pam Stewart says she’s opposed to suspending school grades while the state grapples with the new Common Core benchmarks and new assessments. Miami Herald. More from StateImpact Florida and the Orlando Sentinel.

School choice: Two films promoting alternatives to traditional public schools will be shown at the Orlando Science Center next Tuesday for National School Choice Week. Orlando Sentinel.

Teachers: Two Central Florida French teachers are named among the best in the state for their instruction and promotion of language learning. Orlando Sentinel. Pasco’s superintendent wants to rename substitute teachers “guest teachers.” Tampa Bay Times. Pinellas school superintendent Michael Grego presses local colleges and universities to revamp their education degrees, citing a shortage of quality teachers. Tampa Bay Times. Continue Reading →


Florida seeks to rebrand Common Core

From the News Service of Florida:

TALLAHASSEE – State education officials are pushing forward with a plan to rebrand the standards for what students are expected to learn in Florida schools, hoping to tamp down an uproar among conservative activists who view the current standards as part of a federal takeover of local schools.

Commissioner Stewart

Commissioner Stewart

Almost 100 changes to the “Common Core State Standards” will be considered by the State Board of Education in February, said Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who outlined some of the changes to board members during a meeting Tuesday.

“At that time, I think that it is completely appropriate for us to call our standards the ‘Florida Standards,’ ” Stewart said.

Supporters of the guidelines have taken to using the term “Florida Standards” in recent months as some conservatives have continued to decry Common Core. Those benchmarks were crafted by a coalition of officials from about four-dozen states, but have come to be seen by grassroots conservative groups as an example of federal overreach.

Earlier this month, a gathering of the Republican Party of Florida’s state committeemen and committeewomen voted to oppose Common Core, though the resolution is not binding on the GOP and is not expected to be taken up by the party’s executive board.

Stewart said the changes — which include 60 new standards, 37 clarifications and two deletions — and the inclusion of standards beyond the reach of Common Core, which only covers English and math courses, justifies the new name.

“I think when we strengthen our standards, make these standards our own, provide clarification of 37 standards — that clearly is saying that Florida is out on our own, making stronger standards and doing so in a very autonomous way,” she said. Continue Reading →


Petrilli: School choice movement better off without ‘awful’ schools



School choice supporters should back more government oversight of private schools that accept vouchers and tax credit scholarships because the choice movement would be better off without schools that are “by any measure awful.”

So argued Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, in a live chat Tuesday with redefinED. Petrilli pointed to the think tank’s work with charter schools in Ohio to ground his position.

“Some parents are choosing schools that are, by any measure, awful,” he wrote during the chat. “ ‘By any measure’ is important. I totally understand that math and reading scores are imperfect gauges of school quality, and I understand that choice schools in particular might be ‘adding value’ in ways that don’t show up on test scores but do show up in terms of other, even more important, outcomes, like high school graduation, college-going, or wages.”

“Still, there are schools out there that might mean well, but where it’s hard to see any kind of learning happening. We would be better off, in the choice movement, without them.”

Petrilli’s comments came a week after Fordham released a legislative tool kit that backed more testing, transparency and regulatory consequences for “voucher schools” – and sparked a flurry of criticism from many corners of the choice community. During the chat, he also politely criticized Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for not including sanctions for persistently low-performing schools. (The program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

“Florida’s got the foundation of a good system in place: A well respected scholarship-granting organization (Step up for Students!) and a requirement that participating students take a standardized test, and the results be released. (As I wrote, I would marginally prefer that they take the state test, but it’s not the end of the world that they don’t.)”

“The main thing you DON’T do is act on the information from testing. And I do think that’s a mistake. I would love to know if there are any extremely low-performing schools in your program (based on value-added). Just imagine how much more effective–and popular–your program could be if you weeded those schools (probably just a handful) out!”

You can read the chat in its entirety here:



Florida schools roundup: Charters, virtual school, Common Core & more

Charter schools: Three students from a Broward County graphic arts school take top place in a design competition. Sun Sentinel. A Polk County charter school for children with special needs gets a new leader. The Ledger.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual schools: Florida Virtual School now offers classes for adults in photography, social media and parenting skills. Bradenton Herald. 

School choice: Lee County district schools makes some changes to the student assignment lottery. Naples Daily News.

Awards: President Obama names a Brevard County elementary teacher as a recipient of the prestigious Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Florida Today.

Common Core: A primer on the education standards, which the state Board of Education addresses today, is offered by The Tampa Tribune. Manatee County teachers face the new standards. Bradenton Herald.

Book review: A Brevard County textbook committee tasked with reviewing a controversial world history textbook finds many concerns unfounded, but approves of a supplement created by district social studies teachers. Florida Today.

Bright futures: Proposed legislation would allow students to fulfill the required community service by volunteering on political campaigns. Naples Daily News.

MLK Day: The Gradebook asks if schools should hold class on the day the civil rights leader is honored, instead of giving students time off.


National School Choice Week chugs into 4th year with 5,500 events, train tour

In just four short years, National School Choice Week has mushroomed nationwide from 150 events in 2010 to 5,500 at last count this year, with much of the growth attributed to a positive message and a powerful way of delivering it.

national-school-choice-week-logo1“We don’t want to tell anyone that one choice is better than another one,’’ Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, told redefinED recently. Instead, “we’re celebrating effective education options for kids.’’

From traditional schools to magnet programs, charter and private schools, faith-based education, online learning and homeschooling – it’s all good as long as parents get to choose what’s best for their child, he said.

The 2014 celebration officially kicks off Jan. 26, but a 14-city train and motor coach tour begins in Newark on Jan. 22 and ends, 3,800 miles later, in San Francisco. The “whistle-stop’’ tour is modeled after historic tours in American history that brought attention to issues of national concern, such as women’s rights and civil rights.

It’s all part of a plan to “show America that there are so many choices out there,’’ said Campanella, who listed Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio among the states with good school choice track records. But, he added, “I think every state has room for growth.’’ Continue Reading →


What would Dr. King say about our schools now?

MLK school 4

What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say today about our schools? What approaches would he support to close achievement gaps? What would he think of school choice?

Over the past year, we asked a number of folks to weigh in on those questions. For a podcast last January, we asked the Rev. H.K. Matthews, a civil rights icon in west Florida who knew Dr. King. We asked others for a blog series that ran last August, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

As we celebrate MLK Day today, we thought it appropriate to highlight those posts. We know there are no easy answers, but we hope these voices contribute thoughtfully to the debate.

From H.K. Matthews: School choice: an extension of the civil rights movement

From Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina: Access denied, from lunch counters to zip codes

From John E. Coons, longtime school choice advocate: MLK and God’s schools

From Vernard T. Gant, director of urban school services with the Association of Christian Schools International: The unrealized dream of educational justice

From Peter H. Hanley, executive director, American Center for School Choice: Parental choice would honor The Dream


redefinED roundup: testing and school choice debate, vouchers proposed in TN, ESA’s proposed in OK & more

MondayRoundUp_redAlabama: The state releases the new list of “failing schools” where assigned students may seek transfers to other public or private schools (Education Week). The Birmingham Public School District seeks waivers from the state to allow some schools to operate more like charters (

Alaska: Will 2014 be the year school choice reaches Alaska (Peninsula Clarion)?

Arizona: A school board member in Gilbert hopes to create a voucher program modeled after the one in Douglas Co., Colo. (AZ Central). A charter school organization plans 25 new schools for low-income areas in south and central Phoenix (New York Times, Center for Education Reform).

Arkansas: In response to a charter school controversy in Texas, the state education commissioner states that charter schools in the state must follow state science standards (Arkansas Times).

California: The state misses out on an opportunity for school choice (OC Register). Two leaders of a group resisting efforts to convert a public school into a charter school plead ‘not guilty’ to charges of vandalism (LA Times).

Connecticut: Parents attend a public school choice fair but some critics argue that school choice leads to more inequality for those left behind (The Connecticut Mirror).

D.C.: A judge rules that defendants, in a case involving a charter school run afoul of the D.C. Nonprofit Corporations Act, will not be dismissed (Washington Post).

Florida: Founders of an abruptly shuttered private school in Milwaukee turn up in Florida with a new private school (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). The Brookings Institution gave Polk County a “C” rank on school choice  (The Ledger). A public boarding school for underserved children school operated by the SEED Foundation plans to open this fall (redefinED). With a looming fiscal crisis ahead, Florida can’t ease up on education reform (redefinED). Lee County will allow free private tutoring to return to the district (News-Press).

Illinois: The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune says “it’s time for school choice.” Two charter schools with ties to Rahm Emmanuel are up for approval (Sun Times).

Iowa: A majority of residents favor school choice (Toledo News-Herald).

Indiana: A bill circulating in the state legislature would allow charter schools to cater to adult high school education (Indiana Business Journal). For some reason, vouchers for pre-k has not become a ‘controversial’ issue in the state (WLFI). The nationwide nonprofit Goodwill opens a charter school for dropouts (NPR). Continue Reading →