The students at Carol City Middle School know they attend a “triple-F” school.
They know that for three straight years, the state’s accountability system has branded the Miami Gardens school as a failure.
But one teacher is encouraging students to tell a different story about their school. Without any formal journalism training, newsprint or even a point-and-shoot camera, teacher Katelyn Simoncic is launching Carol City Middle’s first-ever student newspaper.
She hopes the budding journalism program will provide a lesson in school pride, just as Carol City Middle has begun to show promise.
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“I just want to promote my kids to do something that they’re interested in,” Simoncic said. “I figured this would open up their eyes.”
Carol City Middle is in transition. Murals have recently gone up all over the school, splashing vibrant colors onto the drab beige walls. For the first time this year, a diet of intense remediation classes is giving way to elective courses that kids actually like — making room for journalism, drama and culinary arts classes. Community partners that pulled out of the school are once again on campus, and new counseling programs are in place.
“Clubs, activities, sports — these are the things that make a school a school,” Principal Sonia Romero said. “Sometimes electives serve that purpose as well. They keep students coming back to class.”
It seems to be working: Students are finally showing steady progress toward reading and computing at grade level, according to state records.
They’re so used to everything being strictly structured for content. It’s like, kill and drill with material.”
Katelyn Simoncic, teacher
Simoncic began her teaching career in 2013 as a member of Teach for America, an organization that recruits elite college graduates to teach in high-poverty schools.
Simoncic found herself at a school struggling not only with academics, but also pride. In a district survey last year, not one teacher at Carol City Middle said morale at the school was high. Last year, Simoncic came up with a seemingly unlikely solution: to revive the school yearbook after a six-year hiatus.
Armed with her own camera, Simoncic tracked down all of Carol City’s 400 students and took their picture. She set up an email address for teachers to share photos of the “amazing” things going in their classrooms, came up with an Instagram theme and packaged it all together.
“I want to be able to remember my students when I’m old, to see what their faces looked like,” she said. “It was a way to connect to them.”
From there, the idea has grown into a full-blown journalism class, offered this year as an elective. She has launched an online campaign to pay for supplies and plans on printing the twice-a-quarter newspaper on 11-by-7-inch computer paper, using the school’s own copier.
Simoncic also wants her journalism class to bring back a student-produced morning announcements show and give kids control of the yearbook. She sees it as a way to disguise lessons in reading, writing and social skills while giving kids an opportunity to be curious and creative.
“They’re so used to everything being strictly structured for content. It’s like, kill and drill with material,” Simoncic said. “Now that I’m giving them an opportunity for them to express their mind...they’re kind of having an, ‘Uhhh’ moment, like ‘I don’t know what you want me to say.’”
About 20 students have signed up this year. Their ideas for the yet-to-be-named newspaper range from student surveys on best-dressed teachers to cartoon drawings and pep rally coverage.
“The hardest part is the words, like how we’re going to put them” on the page and pick fonts, said Zannae Lundy, a 12-year old sixth-grader.
Last year, I hated it. We used to be in class for hours... The school is better this year.”
Kelneisha Marion, seventh grade student
Carol City Middle hasn’t managed to earn above a C in the 15 years the state has been grading schools. The grades are based largely on test scores, which experts know correlate closely to family income.
Almost all of the 400 students attending Carol City Middle qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family income, according to state records. Poverty in the community is so deep, principal Romero dipped into her own school budget this year to provide students with notebooks and pencils on the first day of school.
She wants them to be ready to learn the moment the school year begins because they’re already starting at a disadvantage. Only 24 percent of Carol City’s students perform at grade level in reading and math, according to state measures.
“We spend a lot of our instructional day remediating students,” Romero said. “But they run the same race as every student in Florida. They just start a couple of legs behind.”
With so many students struggling, there has been little opportunity for them to take elective courses. The state requires kids be placed in remediation courses if they do poorly on standardized tests, which means the school day gets eaten up by intense reading instruction and math drills.
A change in the school day schedule, from six periods to eight, has finally made room for electives. There’s drama, culinary arts and and computer science.
“Last year, I hated it. We used to be in class for hours,” said Kelneisha Marion, a 13-year old seventh-grader. “The school is better this year.”
Carol City’s F is so low, that the school would need to earn the equivalent of a grade and a half on the state’s grading scale just to move into D territory.
State records show the school’s lowest-performing students are making learning gains. But Carol City’s F is so low, the school would need to earn the equivalent of a grade and a half on the state’s grading scale just to move into D territory.
This year is not likely to bring relief after the state switched to even tougher learning standards and a new standardized test. And this year, the state-issued grades won’t account for all the progress students make. Instead, they will be based largely on the percentage of students who perform at grade level.
“I know anyone who steps into this building will know something is different and will know there are no F students here,” Romero said. “But Florida’s accountability formula doesn’t account for that.”