Author Archive | Livi Stanford

Educators overcome racism, anti-immigrant sentiment

Students at RCMA Wimauma Academy gather in front of the garden they helped plant.

Many students at RCMA Wimauma Academy struggle through the school day in fear.

Will their parents be home when they get there? Or will they immigration authorities round them up for deportation?

This is the reality many students face at a school dedicated to serving children of migrant farmworkers. Roughly 65 half percent of Wimauma residents are migrants. Many are undocumented. Life is already uncertain for their parents, who work long hours in the fields at unstable jobs with uncertain pay.

The Trump Administration’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program over six months created new uncertainty among immigrants around the country. The program helps provide a two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation to young adults who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. It helps them get jobs, pursue higher education and live without fear of deportation.

Education groups across the political spectrum — including some leading figures in the charter school movement — have spoken about the need to protect DACA students. Some have criticized the president. Others have taken a more measured approach, focusing on the need for legislative action. While the president called on Congress to replace the program before it phases out, federal lawmakers have yet to act. Continue Reading →


School choice movement leaders try to push past political polarization

The divide between Democrats and Republicans has grown starker over the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. That growing polarization, documented by the Pew Research Center, has begun to plague the politics of education.

Last week, when Foundation for Excellence in Education convened advocates and policymakers for its annual conference in Nashville, speakers and attendees focused underlined the importance of overcoming the divide.

Indeed, over the weekend, The New York Times reported from the conference that President Trump has stymied Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ efforts to expand school choice because he has “paralyzed efforts at cooperation and whose language and policies are seen as antagonistic toward low-income minority communities.”

“Education should not be a partisan issue,” former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is now president of ExcelinEd, said in his opening address. “We need to have broader coalitions, broad left, right coalitions and that’s been tattered. Make friends with people on the other side. Make sure you are inclusive in your efforts to build these coalitions. There is strong support for vouchers and charter schools across the country and we need to take advantage of that.” Continue Reading →


Charter school focuses on students in rural poverty

Students in Mandy Johnson’s third-grade class scored the second highest in the county in FCAT Mathematics in 2016..

It all begins with a song Mandy Johnson sings to her third-grade students to help them remember key math concepts.

“Area is two squares inside,” she sings. “What is the perimeter?”

She reinforces the repetition of the songs with worksheets students must complete every morning on key concepts. Johnson said this has helped students better retain the information.

Johnson said she has access to different math programs, which are not available in other public schools.

Indeed, the third-grade class at this low-income migrant school in Hillsborough County outscored every other third-grade class in the district on last year’s state math assessments. Ninety-eight percent of Wimauma students are Hispanic. Nearly all are considered economically disadvantaged. More than four-fifths are classified as English language learners.

The third-grade class at this Hillsborough charter school, founded to serve the children of migrant farmworkers, was one of only 12 groups of third-graders in the state that demonstrated 100 percent proficiency on the FSA math test. Overall, scores at the school also tend to be higher than average.

Johnson said her students have a real hunger for learning. Continue Reading →


A parent describes her fight for her son’s educational options

Cristina Maxwell speaks about her determination to change the eligibility requirements for the Gardiner Scholarships to include children such as her son.

Cristina Maxwell’s world came crashing down when she learned the diagnosis of her son who had just graduated from kindergarten: a malignant brain tumor.

The 5-year-old had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

And when his health improved, the family faced another hurdle. Nicolas now faced significant learning disabilities because of the chemotherapy and radiation he endured.

“We had him tested and the (doctor) basically told us we would have to create a program for him and extensive speech therapy to talk again,” Maxwell said. She spoke alongside other parents and students on a panel at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s national gathering in Nashville. “Frankly the cost of that was astronomical” — as much as $50,000 a year, according to a column in the Sun-Sentinel.

Those costly, wide-ranging therapeutic needs meant a conventional, seven-hour-a-day classroom setting wouldn’t work for Nicolas.

As a result, Maxwell hoped she could secure a Gardiner scholarship, which provides education savings accounts for children with special needs.

The scholarships are worth approximately 90 percent of the amount the state would spend to educate a child in public schools. Parents can use the money to pay for private-school tuition, homeschool curriculum, therapies, public-school courses, college savings and other approved education-related expenses. Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program. Continue Reading →


Corcoran hopeful about Schools of Hope

Panel of experts, Colorado Sen. Angela Williams, D-Colorado, (far left) and House Speaker Richard Corcoran weigh in on Schools of Hope

With “Schools of Hope,” Florida is providing funding, facilities and regulatory freedom to roll out the welcome mat for high-caliber charter organizations that have often shied away from its big cities.

On Thursday, at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s national gathering in Nashville, state House Speaker Richard Corcoran joined a panel of charter school experts and Sen. Angela Williams to discuss the Hope law — one of his signature education initiatives. They talked about the program’s potential, and also raised cautions.

The new law is intended to draw proven charter schools into academically struggling areas. The state Department of Education is still developing rules to carry out the program.

Recruiting the top charter school organizations from around the country is part of a broader strategy to transform the state’s 115 schools that have languished for four or more years with the lowest possible ratings on the state’s A-F system.

But in the same measure, Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said after the panel that there are some caveats to keep in mind.

“You have to eliminate barriers for schools to operate,” she said. “That by itself doesn’t guarantee it will perform with quality and equity.”

Lake added during the panel discussion that it is important to look at the politics of the situation.

“There is a lot of that at both the national level and state level, especially around districts struggling with the reality of losing enrollment and the financial pressure of that,” she said. Continue Reading →


Personalized learning and the reinvention of a Florida high school

Members of Seminole High School Band practice during a rehearsal. The music program is now part of the school’s Academy for Advancement in the Arts.

In 2014, graduate rates surged throughout Florida, continuing years of growth. But numbers at Seminole High School were going in the opposite direction.

Once an A-rated school, it had slipped to a C. In 2007, Newsweek recognized it as a top high school in the country. But in the years that followed it faced mounting competition from within the Pinellas County school district. A nearby fundamental program at Osceola High School and an International Baccalaureate program at Largo High were drawing high-achieving students.

Jane Lucas, Seminole High’s assistant principal, said at the time, she identified the crux of the problem. Students were disengaged.

“We want to be the high school that wouldn’t let any child fall through the cracks,” she said.

Thomas Brittain, principal at Seminole High, had just become the principal. He agreed something had to change.

Administrators began working on a plan to transform their high school from the bottom up. Lucas described the ensuing changes as “de-institutionalizing the institution.”

Seminole High wound up throwing out some old-school conventions, like bell schedules. It started offering new programs tailored to students’ career aspirations. It now includes seven in-house academies, built around themes from theater to engineering to sports. The new structure held on to core classes but gave students a variety of projects outside the classroom based on real-life concepts such as business and engineering. Rather than penalize students who struggle, they look for ways to help them succeed.

Lucas said Brittain, who joined the district in 2013, took the helm at just the right time.

“I remember his first meeting with our faculty and staff,” she said. “He put forward his vision talking about how students need to be engaged and cared for.”

At the time, officials across the Pinellas school district were starting to talk about personalized education.  They were preparing to apply for a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support a new approach.

Flash forward a few years, and people who visit Seminole High School find a more humane learning environment. The school tries to treat students with respect and expects them to take ownership of their learning.

“No bells seems to bring a sense of calmness,” Lucas said. “We are treating people the way they want to be treated.”

Seminole High, home of the Warhawks, is home to more than 2,000 students.

Brittain said it all comes down to giving students choices.

“The larger the school, the more rules people tend to make. It doesn’t have to be that way,” said Brittain. “We have taken a lot of rules away and asked students to be responsible.” Continue Reading →


Seminole High School academies give students more choices

Samatha Keim and Cassidy Brooks have thrived at Seminole County High School learning academies

During Seminole Warhawks Varsity football games, Cassidy Brooks has a front row seat. She snaps pictures of football players as they make touchdowns or tackles.

After covering a game for the Sports Career Institute at Seminole High School in Pinellas County, Fla., she edits her photos and publishes them on its website.

“It gives me an opportunity to build a portfolio,” said Brooks, a senior. “I might be interested in pursuing a career in the sports. It is something I really enjoy doing. It doesn’t feel like work. It is just a fun thing.”

The academy is one of seven the school offers as part of a personalized learning initiative that began in 2014. The academies give students more choices and real-world experience in fields that interest them.

The school continues to provide a core curriculum in conjunction with the academies. The new structure, the first of its kind in Pinellas County schools, is part of broader a push to tailor instruction to students’ individual needs, strengths and interests.

Administrators designed the academies with college majors in mind. Continue Reading →


Bill would add legal protections for homeschool parents

Sen. Dennis Baxley

A state lawmaker has once again has filed legislation that would rein in district inquiries to parents who register home education programs.

The bill comes in response to concerns among parents that districts add hurdles for homeschool registration. That has likely contributed to a decline in home schooling in some districts, even though state statistics show its popularity is growing statewide.

Florida law requires home schoolers to register with their local school districts. They have to send a signed notice of intent to the school district superintendent with the students’ names, birthdates and addresses. The bill would bar districts from requiring other information from parents. It would also clarify that a home education program is not a school district program.

The statute does not ask that parents provide proof of residency and a birth certificate. However, the Miami-Dade School Board adopted a policy requiring parents to provide those documents. And parents have complained of similar practices in other counties, including Broward, Hillsborough and St. Lucie.

“For that individual family to be supported in their decision to choose a different path when today we have so many more resources for home school curriculums they should not be impeded in the pursuit of what is best for each and every child,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who filed the legislation.

Legal advocates say districts like Miami-Dade began requesting extra documentation from home schoolers after the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona, whose body was found in the back of a pickup truck in 2011. An investigation by the Department of Children and Families concluded she was a victim of child abuse. Investigators also noted that, in 2010, Nubia’s parents pulled her out of school system and homeschooled her. Continue Reading →