Author Archive | Ron Matus

At this private school, STEM gets a boost

At St. Luke's science camp, teaccher Diann Bacchus talks sheep brain with (from top, clockwise) Tyler Dempsey, 12, Widmaier Maurice, 13, and James Pabisz, 13. The Notre Dame Center for STEM Education helped St. Luke kick off the 2-week camp last year.

At St. Luke’s science camp, teacher Diann Bacchus talks sheep brain with (from top, clockwise) Tyler Dempsey, 12, Widmaier Maurice, 13, and James Pabisz, 13. The Notre Dame Center for STEM Education helped St. Luke kick off the 2-week camp last year.

On a summer morning when some middle schoolers were sleeping in or headed to the beach, 12-year-old Ariana Rendona and two dozen other students were in a classroom at St. Luke Catholic School, using X-acto knives to slice up sheep brain. Behind goggles and lab coats, they took turns differentiating grey matter from white matter and cerebrum from cerebellum.

“Disgusting but fun,” Ariana said.

For she and other students at St. Luke, a PreK-8 school that serves a heavily Hispanic population in Palm Springs, Fla., science immersion has suddenly become a thing. Over the past 18 months, St. Luke has done what many schools, public and private, either can’t or won’t: make STEM a priority.

It added 20 minutes to the school day just for STEM, hired a STEM coordinator, invested in STEM-oriented professional development for the entire teaching staff and instituted a two-week STEM summer camp for students like Ariana. Much of this has been done in partnership with the new Center for STEM Education at Notre Dame, an outfit that has quickly and quietly launched several projects aimed at bolstering science instruction in Catholic schools and beyond.

The result: Engaged students. Happy parents. Another potential selling point for a private school in an increasingly competitive school choice market. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, a template and inspiration for other schools.

About three-fourths of the 170 students at St. Luke are minorities, and nearly 70 of them use the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. (The program is administered by non-profits like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) For them, more exposure to high-quality STEM instruction is especially important, said Sue Sandelier, St. Luke’s principal, and Diann Bacchus, its science coordinator.

“Money is a struggle for many of the families here” but solid grounding in STEM can lead to high-paying careers for their children, said Bacchus, a longtime educator in both public and private schools. “I see it as their way out.”

St. Luke’s aims are notable for all kinds of reasons. Continue Reading →


Education Week: Florida’s graduation rate still low, still rising fast

FL EW DC coverThe latest report on Florida’s public school graduation rate tells a familiar but underreported story: The rate continues to be both among the nation’s worst – and its fastest improving.

Florida’s graduation rate in 2013 was 76 percent, putting it 5 percentage points below the national average and No. 43 among 49 states with data to report, according to the most recent federal stats spotlighted via the annual Diplomas Count report from Education Week, released today.

Iowa came in at No. 1, with 90 percent. Oregon was last at 69 percent. Data wasn’t available for Idaho.

At the same time, Florida’s graduation rate rose 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2013. That’s more than twice the national rate and tied for 5th among states in gains. (Nevada led in progress, with a 9-point jump.)

Until last year, Education Week used its own methodology to determine state-by-state graduation rates, rather than rely solely on federal data. In 2013, it reported Florida’s rate ranked No. 2 in improvement between 2000 and 2010, rising 23 percentage points over that span. (That report also ranked Florida No. 34 among states in 2010.)

Graduation rates are dicey to compare state to state because of differences in demographics, graduation requirements and diploma types. Florida is among the poorest of states (it ranks No. 44 in the percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch) but has set a higher bar than most for earning a standard diploma (see here and here).

The latest Diplomas Count puts special emphasis on students with disabilities. Continue Reading →


More black ministers slamming NAACP for fighting school choice

Pastor Sykes

Pastor Sykes

Leading black ministers in Florida are ramping up criticism of the NAACP for supporting a lawsuit that seeks to kill the nation’s largest private school choice program.

The Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, became the latest to do so, suggesting during a “radio rally” in Tampa Bay today that the esteemed civil rights organization was stuck in the past.

“While they’re fighting the old fight of integration versus segregation, our children are falling through the cracks. And in this issue, I believe they’re on the wrong side,” said Sykes, former president of the NAACP branch in St. Petersburg. “So at this point, we’re out here to advocate for and inform our African-American community that this (school choice) is something they need to support. Because while everyone is fighting on the top levels, it’s our children that’s at stake.”

At issue is the lawsuit filed last August by the Florida teachers union, Florida School Boards Association, the Florida branch of the NAACP and other groups. It argues the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students is akin to the state’s first K-12 voucher program, which the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2006. Both sides are awaiting a ruling from Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds on whether the plaintiffs have standing to continue.

The scholarship program is administered by non-profits such as Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post. This year, the program serves 70,000 students statewide, including more than 20,000 black students.

Sykes was president of the local NAACP until last summer, when state NAACP officials forced his ouster after he appeared at a rally opposing the lawsuit. He did not criticize the NAACP or note his ties during that event, but did not hold back today.

“Groups like the NAACP, as sad as it is to say, they fought for desegregation because they believed that the quality of education of black children would be increased. However, the statistics show it’s gone in the opposite direction,” Sykes said. “And now they are struggling with the idea of the same people they fought for having the choice to take their business elsewhere. Any restaurant, any bank, any institution that does not offer you the services that you need, you have the right to move. But they’re telling us, sort of like the Pharaoh said, ‘I’m not going to let your people go.’ ” Continue Reading →


Florida students rock AP tests despite demographic challenges

AP cohort data report coverFlorida now trails only Maryland and Connecticut, states with far lower rates of low-income students, in the percentage of graduating seniors who have passed college-caliber Advanced Placement exams.

Thirty percent of Florida’s Class of 2014 found success on at least one AP exam, moving Florida ahead of high-flying Massachusetts and in a tie with Virginia, according to results recently released to states by the College Board, the nonprofit that oversees the AP program.

The national success rate was 21.6 percent.

Florida’s performance is especially noteworthy given its demographics. In fact, no state has a bigger disconnect between AP results and rate of low-income kids. (See chart at the end of this post.)

Florida ranks No. 44 in the percentage of students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, at 57.6 percent, according to the most recent federal figures. Massachusetts ranks No. 3, with 35.1 percent; Connecticut No. 5, with 35.7 percent; and Virginia No. 9, with 39.2 percent. Maryland comes in at No. 17, with 41.8 percent.

Despite its challenges, Florida continues to be a pace-setter in AP progress, too, coming in at No. 2 in improved performance over the past decade. Between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of graduating seniors in Florida passing at least one AP exam rose 13.7 percentage points, far surpassing the national rise of 8.9 points. Only Connecticut improved more.

The Florida story isn’t happenstance. In 2000, the state forged a partnership with the College Board to widen the doors of access to low-income and minority students, who had too often been shut out of AP classrooms. At the same time, it better identified potential AP students, better grounded them for tougher courses and better prepared AP teachers for more diverse classrooms.

Success skyrocketed. In 2000, Florida students passed less than 40,000 AP exams; last year, they passed roughly 150,000.

The trend lines have been especially steep for minority students: Continue Reading →


Florida nears 14,000 mark for charter school teachers

The number of charter school teachers in Florida reached a new high again this year and is now just shy of 14,000, according to preliminary state numbers.

FL charter school teachers 2014-15Counting all instructional personnel, the new total of 13,951 is up 13 percent from last year.

The increase isn’t a surprise given Florida’s growing charter school sector, which ranks among the largest in the nation. (As reported on redefinED last month, charter school students in Florida topped the 250,000 mark this year, and now account for 1 in 11 public school students in the state.) But it is another noteworthy sign of how fast the education landscape is shifting not just for parents and students, but educators.

Charter school teachers in Florida are still just a fraction of all public school teachers in the state (about 7 percent). At the same time, Florida now has more charter school teachers than nine states have public school teachers, period.

Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest in population, outpaces all other districts with 2,752 charter school teachers. Broward County is second with 1,895, followed by Palm Beach County with 1,251.

This Florida Department of Education spreadsheet offers a breakdown by district and by instructional categories. It also includes info on charter school administrative ranks.


Parent of student with autism: New ed choice program is precious gift

John Kurnik

John Kurnik

Wonks and politicos weren’t the only attendees at the Jeb Bush education summit in Tallahassee this week. Parents who support educational choice were also there, including John Kurnik of Tampa, Fla., who has a 12-year-old son with autism.

A college professor, Kurnik introduced Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, and for good reason. Gardiner led the legislative charge last year for creation of Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, a new ed choice program for students with significant special needs. Kurnik and his wife Mary secured a PLSA for their son, and have become vocal and visible supporters.

We thought Kurnik’s prepared remarks were worth posting in full. They’ve been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Good afternoon! My name is John Kurnik, and I am honored and humbled to be speaking to you today about high-quality education for the children in our state.

First, on behalf of my son John who has autism, my wife and family, the Florida PLSA recipients and the thousands of family members, friends, neighbors, and all those who will be touched in a positive and hope-filled way … thank you … from the bottom of our hearts.

Thank you for knowing that the educational paradigm for special needs education requires early and effective intervention if we are to help these young people maximize their special gifts in a timely manner. And until now, many families including my own, have had to triage psychologist- and physician- recommended therapies and treatments according to those available services and the family budget. Or more times than not, completely go without.

Many thanks for helping these young people and their families with the hope of overcoming hurdles to success, and giving them the possibility of a productive, full, and happy life with the blessing of the PLSA. They will benefit from the PLSA. And when they benefit, all of us – our neighborhoods, our communities and our state – will benefit too.

I congratulate you for recognizing that special needs includes hope for the parents, siblings, friends, and relatives of a special-needs child who needs 24-7 care and attention by a wonder woman or superman parent or caregiver.

Thank you for trusting us as those caregivers for our special kids to make the best decisions possible on their behalf as good stewards of these funds which allow great things to happen. Believe that the vast majority of us play by the rules, and we agonize over the best use of this precious gift. Continue Reading →


Florida is and isn’t Top 10 in latest Education Week rankings

EdWeek QC coverAfter a strong run of top-tier showings, Florida public schools are No. 28 in the latest overall rankings from Education Week, but continue to place in the Top 10 in academic achievement.

Education Week moved to a slimmed-down version of its annual “Quality Counts” analysis this year, after not giving overall grades or ranks to states last year. The new version, released Thursday, is based on three broad categories rather than six, and does not include several categories in which Florida traditionally scored well, including standards and accountability, and the teaching profession.

Between 2009 and 2013, Florida finished at No. 11, No. 5, No. 8, No. 11 and No. 6 in overall rank. EdWeek cautioned that this year’s overall grades are not directly comparable to past years because of the change in scoring criteria.

In the K-12 achievement category, Florida finished in the same spot as last year, No. 7, but the data in that category was not updated from last year (it’s typically updated every other year). Between 2009 and 2013, Florida finished at No. 7, No. 7, No. 6, No. 12 and No. 12 in achievement, according to EdWeek’s analyses, which look at performance and progress with NAEP scores, AP results and graduation rates.

Supporters of Florida education policy have often touted the rankings as another credible indicator of the state’s steady progress since the late 1990s. Critics have often ignored or dismissed them.

In overall rank, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Vermont finished at the top this year, all earning B grades. Florida’s overall grade is a C, the same as the nation’s.

In achievement, Florida finished behind Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and Minnesota and ahead of Pennsylvania, Washington and Virginia. Florida has a far higher rate of low-income students than any of them (57.6 percent, according to the most recent federal data, compared to 35.1 percent for front-runner Massachusetts.) It was given a C in the category, while the nation earned a C-. Continue Reading →


10 school choice wishes

school choice wish 2014 logoIf you could change one thing to move the ball on parental school choice, what would it be? As we’ve done the past couple of years, we posed that question to a range of folks in the school choice universe. Over the next two weeks, we’ll publish their responses.

Our contributors reflect the incredible diversity of voices supporting choice – voices many of us find compelling and complementary. They are Republican and Democrat; conservative and liberal; black, white and Hispanic. Folks from think tanks and advocacy groups and academia kindly took time to weigh in. So did a community organizer and a school board member. So did a mom.

Here’s the line-up:

Friday: Dec. 19: Ben DeGrow, education policy analyst with the Colorado-based Independence Institute.

Monday, Dec. 22: Peter Hanley, executive director of the American Center for School Choice.

Tuesday, Dec. 23: Sharhonda Bossier, vice president, advocacy and engagement, at Education Cities.

Wednesday, Dec. 24: Rev. Timothy Scully, founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame.

Friday, Dec. 26: Two posts: The first by Charles Glenn, noted education researcher at Boston University; the second by Jason Crye, executive director of Hispanics for School Choice.

Monday, Dec. 29: Wevlyn Graves, a Florida parent of a tax credit scholarship student.

Tuesday, Dec. 30: Nicole Stelle Garnett, professor at Notre Dame Law School and co-author of the 2014 book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America.”

Wednesday, Dec. 31: Gary Beckner, founder and executive director of the Association of American Educators.

Friday, Jan. 2: Jeff Bergosh, a member of the Escambia County (Fla.) School Board. Continue Reading →