Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, narrowly beat his Democratic opponent in 2018 to represent Florida’s 115th District, a seat held by former Education Committee Chair Michael Bileca. One of many freshman members serving this year on House education committees, Aloupis wants to become a legislative leader in early childhood development.
Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in redefinED just over five years ago on Jan. 22, 2014. At that time, the school served 270 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Today, its award-winning program offers two tuition-free schools in Tallahassee, the second serving kindergarten through fourth-grade students. It maintains its status of being among the highest ranked schools in Leon County and is in the top 10 percent of schools in the state based on Florida School Rankings. It also has been recognized as one of 10 excellent charter schools in Florida by the Florida Charter School Conference.
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.
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?”
Next try: Car rolls. A bigger balloon pops. The pendulum swings. The second car rams the marble. The marble rolls … and rolls … and (hold your breath) … stops at cliff’s edge. Ahhhh, the boys groan.
But they smile, too.
“We fail a lot,” shrugs seventh-grader Mahir Rutherford. “That’s just part of the experiment.”
Sear’s class at SAS is noteworthy for what it doesn’t have. No textbooks. No lavish equipment. No admonitions to get this right because it’s going to be on the FCAT (the dreaded state test). No fear of failure. And usually, no force-fed information.
“Who agrees? Who disagrees?” Sear says during a class debate. The topic: data reliability in an experiment involving the speed of toy cars and marbles on very short ramps. She points to a girl at random: “Defend.”
“I’m not going to tell you any right and wrong answers,” Sears says a few minutes later, as she invites others to offer explanations in front of the class. “You’re going to have to deal with that.”
They do. And they love it. Asked what accounts for their success, the students offer many of the same answers as their teacher. Many were in district schools before SAS. Many gush about the school they’re in now.
“We do more hands on. It’s not like, ‘Okay, get your textbooks.’ ”
“Instead of just memorizing things, we learn how to figure them out.”
Several echoed variations on the leverage theme.
“If we don’t do something with enough enthusiasm, Miss Julie reminds us that we chose to be here.”
Florida has yet to get the credit it deserves for pace-setting gains in reading and math. But it hasn’t gotten the same traction in science. Some school choice supporters see potential for growth there.
For example, charter schools, freed from the complications of collective bargaining, theoretically could embrace meaningful differential pay – a potentially useful tool for luring and keeping STEM teachers. There’s also a small but growing number of charter schools, such as the high-minority, high-performing Orlando Science School, that put STEM front and center. Parents are drooling over them.
Coincidentally or not, schools of choice lead the Florida pack in science. Ten of the 29 highest-performing middle schools are charter schools. Seven are magnet schools. On the other hand, there’s no doubt some district schools excel in science, and that they too have rock-star science teachers.
In Sear’s case, then, how much of her success hinges on SAS being a school of choice in general, or a charter specifically? Is there something about charter schools or other choice schools that makes them more likely to create the conditions that maximize teaching talent?
Sear’s principal says yes. So does a parent at the school. So does one of Sear’s colleagues, a science teacher at a district school, even as he and the others acknowledge Sear would probably soar anywhere.
“I am not micromanaging her,” says the principal, Julie Fredrickson, who taught in district schools for 14 years. “Districts are more likely to feel the need to have more control.”
A charter school “takes the big boss off your shoulder,” said Susie Merkhofer, who has two kids at SAS.
In district schools “teachers tend to homogenize their curriculum,” said Charles Carpenter, a 15-year physics teacher in the district where SAS is located.
Carpenter is on sabbatical and working at Florida State University, on a professional development program that helps teachers increase their physics knowledge. He said research vouches for Sear’s approach to science instruction – yet, for reasons that befuddle him, many district schools have yet to follow suit.
So does Sear think it’s better in a charter school?
She won’t say yes or no. Instead, she put her thoughts down in a lengthy email, pointing to a combination of things that she says makes a difference.
To make a long story short … our school does a fabulous job of making me feel VALUED and empowered. I feel that my efforts are appreciated, that my voice is heard, and that my opinions matter. …
Yesterday, I mentioned to you that leadership is key. I don’t know if “charter” is the key. Maybe, in the charter schools led by national management companies, the small school feeling is lost in the top-down leadership. It would be interesting to find out more about the other high performing charters. Are they led through big management companies or are they more grass roots in nature? Does that make a difference?
Basically, does teacher value/empowerment equate to successful teaching and learning?
And as a result, when teachers feel valued/empowered, are we able to help the kids feel more valued/empowered?
Very interesting way to start my morning!
Clint Duvo had difficulty finding a qualified candidate to teach his career planning class last year. So the principal of Somerset Academy Lakes Elementary and Sports Leadership and Management Middle School in Palm Beach, with more than 90 percent of their students on free or reduced-price lunch, decided to teach the class himself.
“It is a challenge to find people who … meet criteria in more than one subject matter,” he said.
Duvo is not alone. Like many traditional public schools, charter school principals are struggling to find teachers and retain them.
Charter officials say the problem has become worse in the past few years because fewer people are entering the teaching profession, the pay continues to be too low, and many are struggling to afford and pass the General Knowledge Test, one of three tests to become certified. Florida law requires teachers to become certified within three years of beginning teaching, but they must pass the General Knowledge Test after the first year.
There’s also the issue of competitive pay. Jane Watt, board chairwoman for Marco Island Academy, a charter in Collier County serving 230 students, said it is difficult when good teachers leave for higher pay. The school recently lost a math teacher who went back into the financial industry.
While the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says it does not track data on teacher shortages in charter schools, many charter school officials in Florida say it is an ongoing struggle.
(Below is an edited version of a talk Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill gave to the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Prosperity Summit on May 3, 2018, in Orlando, Florida. The words have been modified slightly for length, clarity and focus. Step Up For Students also publishes redefinED.)
Let’s start with the good news. Public education in Florida has never been better. The most recent results from the Nation’s Report Card showed Florida students leading the country in Reading and Math gains.
Now the bad news. While Florida’s low-income students lead the nation in reading, only 30% are proficient. We look good because the rest of the country looks so bad.
We all understand the power of ownership. No one washes a rental car before returning it. Unfortunately, public education today turns too many adults and children into renters. We need to move from a system that disempowers and alienates too many adults and children, to one that empowers and engages them.
The Florida tax credit scholarship program our nonprofit helps run illustrates the importance of empowering families, students, and educators. We give scholarships to Florida’s lowest-income, lowest-performing children to attend a private school or a public school in another district. The scholarships are worth about 60 percent of what we spend to educate children in district schools, and yet we’re seeing good results.
Once on scholarship, these low-income students keep up with all students nationally on standardized test growth, and, if they are on scholarship for four or more years, they are 40 percent more likely to attend college. Choice leads to ownership and ownership produces better results. And in the case of our scholarship, better results for much less money.
There are several reasons why our public education system is so poorly designed, but two key historical reasons stand out. First is the hostility Protestants felt toward Catholics in the early days of the Republic. Second is the batch production revolution in manufacturing that occur in the late 1800s.
FORT LAUDERDALE – Too many schools pay all their teachers the same way. And that might be keeping talented people out of the profession, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, told a charter school gathering Friday.
Florida schools need to find a better way to reward top teachers, he said.
Most districts rely on “step-and-lane” salary schedules that pay teachers based on their level of graduate degree, and increase pay with each year of experience. Florida’s foray into merit pay added teacher evaluations to the mix. That had limited effects.
Diaz, who chairs the House’s education budget committee, said the system doesn’t offer enough to young teachers with outstanding classroom skills or unique qualifications in demanding fields. Too often, he said, teachers are treated like one is as good as the next.
“You’re not making widgets,” he said. “They’re treated in a fashion as if they were labor workers in a technical industry. They’re not. They’re professionals.”
Diaz, a former public school teacher and administrator, said when top-performing young teachers prepare to start a family, they often realize there’s only one sure path to a big salary increase. They angle for administration jobs. Every time that happens, he said, “you’re taking the best person out of the classroom.”
Virtual school outreach: More than 20,000 Puerto Rican students displaced by Hurricane Maria will be offered free access to course offered by the Florida Virtual School, whether they’re at home or in Florida. “I am glad that Florida Virtual School has stepped up to help these families as they rebuild their lives,” says Gov. Rick Scott. “The state of Florida will continue to do all we can to help them during this challenging time.” The state is also encouraging all 67 school districts to accept displaced students. Many districts are already see enrollment of students from Puerto Rico and other areas hard-hit by the hurricane. WJHG. WFLA. WESH. WQAM. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. WWSB. WPLG. WUSF.
Dropout dollars: For-profit dropout recovery schools in Florida, Ohio and Illinois are aggressively recruiting at-risk students and counting them as enrolled even after they stop attending school in order to keep collecting public money, according to a review of public records and state auditors. Dropout recovery schools are enrolling an increasing number of struggling students who are offloaded by traditional high schools that want to keep test scores and graduation rates up. ProPublica.
Charter conversion: The Florida Department of Education has begun a process that could lead to the transfer of control of the Madison County Central School to a charter company. The state has informed the district it must reassign some teachers and form a community assessment team by Oct. 18. By Nov. 15, the school board would be presented three options: close the school, bring in an approved charter company to take over the school, or hire a charter company that is managed by the district. Superintendent Karen Pickles says the district-managed charter plan is the only acceptable option. Madison County Carrier.
Charter application: The Marion County School Board will vote Tuesday on a charter school application from Charter Schools USA. The for-profit charter company wants to build the Southeast Marion Charter School, which would start at K-6 with 615 students but add a grade in each of the first two years to top out at K-8 and 745 students. The company plans to build the school with state funds. If it fails, the property would be owned by Charter Schools USA. Ocala Star-Banner.
Teachers in Florida’s district-run public schools are nearly four times as likely to be “chronically absent” from the classroom as their charter school colleagues.
And that’s not all, according to a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Florida is home to several charter school networks with unionized teachers and collective bargaining contracts. The municipal charter system in Pembroke Pines is one example. Teachers in those schools are twice as likely to be chronically absent than their colleagues in the majority of charters that aren’t unionized.
In other words, teachers in unionized schools have a greater tendency to miss work more than 10 days out of a school year. And that can affect students. Studies have found teacher absences hurt student learning, and that schools with higher concentrations of disadvantaged students tend to have higher teacher absenteeism rates.
Folks at Fordham acknowledge teacher attendance is the sort of “input” measure that doesn’t typically interest the think tank. It prefers to focus on schools’ “output,” i.e. student results.
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
The Florida Education Association teachers union has filed a potential class-action lawsuit alleging that the state’s controversial “Best and Brightest” bonus program discriminates against older teachers and minorities.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Tallahassee, names as defendants the Florida Department of Education and school boards throughout the state.
Lawmakers approved the Best and Brightest program in 2015 to provide bonuses to teachers. But the program has been controversial, in part, because it uses teacher performances on SAT and ACT college-entrance exams — in some cases, exams that teachers took decades ago — to help determine eligibility for the bonuses.
The lawsuit, which also includes seven individual teachers as plaintiffs, alleges that the Best and Brightest program violates state and federal civil-rights laws because of the use of the SAT and ACT scores.