In Miami, an ‘F’ school strives to make the grade

The words Kiana Jefferson scribbled onto a 3-by-5 index card were supposed to be motivating.

Around her, as Survivor by Destiny’s Child played over a teacher’s stereo, a dozen Allapattah Middle School students penned messages to themselves predicting victory over Florida’s high-stakes FCAT exams. Most exuded, or at least feigned, confidence.

What the soft-spoken sixth-grader jotted down was less a rah-rah speech and more a sobering reminder of the pressures on this “failing” school and some 500 kids growing up in one of Miami’s poorest communities.

She raised her hand and spoke softly: “Everyone is counting on you to pass the FCAT.”

She’s right.

On Monday, students at Allapattah Middle, along with other Miami-Dade public schools, will take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test’s reading, math and science exams. Perform well and students will give Allapattah breathing room within Florida’s school accountability system. Falter and their school will fall under increased pressure and a state mandate to improve or face the threat of an overhaul, or perhaps even closure.

That urgency has intensified efforts by teachers and administrators to boost FCAT scores from last year, when fewer than a quarter were completing math problems at passing rates and fewer than one in five were reading at grade-level.

New faculty, tutors and programs have been brought in. Frayed community ties have been mended. And with extra support from a district office that helps struggling schools, the way students are taught is changing.

Meanwhile, students have been working around the clock, attending tutoring sessions before and after school and during lunch, and going to class on Saturdays. With two weeks of testing set to begin Monday, the Allapattah Mustangs say they’re ready.

“We ain’t scared of no FCAT,” said Camron Grant, 12.

Overcoming Adversity

For this school built 50 years ago in Miami’s 33142 zip code, where the average household income is among the lowest 1 percent of all communities in the United States, the path out of purgatory leads uphill.

Last year, 151 students missed more than four weeks of class. More than half the school’s students were suspended at least once. Most teachers who filled out an annual survey said their students began school behind grade level and said they struggled to get parents involved.

As the school’s reputation sank, the parents applied elsewhere for their children or even forced their way to other schools this summer through opportunity scholarships, reducing the school’s enrollment to almost half of what it was a decade ago.

Principal Bridget McKinney, now in her second year, said at some points last year the pressures of being an “F” school, dealing with community violence and the loss of some kids and a faculty member left her crying in her car. But she says the school’s teachers, administrators and students have regrouped.

“There were ‘F’ things happening in this building. A lot of things had to change,” said McKinney, who last year became Allapattah’s third principal in three years. “But I’m not accepting an ‘F’ as a validation of what Allapattah is today.”

Proving that point begins Monday. But actually changing the school — where neither closure threats nor rescue attempts are new — has been a process. It begins every day before the morning bell rings, at the front door.

As students straggle in from Northwest 46th Avenue, a group of a dozen corps members from City Year, a nonprofit that places mentors in tutors in inner city schools, stand in a gauntlet. They chant, shimmy and clap.

“Tick, tick, tick, tick, BOOM dynamite!” they yell in encouragement. “Allapattah is dynamite! Mustangs are dynamite!”

Some students smile. Others rush past or walk by as if no one were there.

Corny? Perhaps.

But McKinney says feel-good gimmicks boost school spirit and combat the image of a dropout factory conjured up by the school’s “F” grade. It’s a view that led McKinney to send a U-Haul truck to two closing middle schools this summer to pick up unwanted instruments for the volunteer Marching Mustangs.

The band is now at 147 members and marched at halftime of the football game between Miami Central and Miami Carol City this fall, according to security monitor and marching band director Mercory Murphy.

“This school is not what the school grade says it is. People say it’s bad, but it’s not,” said William Guzman, 12, who plays saxaphone. “We learn, learn, learn.”

For encouragement, some teachers carry bags of Tootsie Rolls and Smarties as rewards. McKinney offered students a free trip to Busch Gardens if they attended, and participated in, six of the school’s seven Saturday sessions. Teachers adopted PRIDE groups of “bubble students” who they believe could pass or fail depending on motivation and effort.

Meanwhile, the district this year opened an iPrep Math academy at the school, a new, federally funded initiative through which each student is given a laptop. The school continues to hold a culinary class in which Guzman said students learn to cook foods like fried Oreos and pancakes and earn industry certifications.

McKinney says what the school is doing works. The school’s enrollment has rebounded past 500 again. Some students who left, she said, are transferring back.

Small Successes

Two years ago, there almost ceased to be an Allapattah Middle, when the school district considered merging the school with Miami Jackson Senior High. The idea prompted backlash.

But PTSA president Regina Davis, grandmother of two Allapattah Middle students, said the school and community have grown closer since. . For instance, in the last year, she said, the parent organization’s membership jumped from five to 90. The school started a Saturday parenting class, and invited grandparents to visit.

Davis, who grilled McKinney the first time they met, said the principal sees the school for its potential rather than its failures. Now, she said kids who were skipping class are coming to school early and leaving late.

“There was a time when kids would just jump the fence and run,” said Davis.

High Expectations

Doug Herring sees the change. The former immigration attorney from the Midwest changed careers to teaching three years ago and came down to Allapattah Middle through Teach For America, a nonprofit under the same umbrella as City Year that places college grads as teachers in inner city schools.

Herring, the school’s math coach, said in his first year students gave up easily. Ten minutes into the first FCAT test, half his class dropped their pencils and put their heads down on their desks. Now, he said his students are motivated to work their way into advanced classes, though Herring tries to distinguish between test scores and self worth.

“Whatever you get on this test is not who you are,” he tells his kids.

In Sherri Tarver’s 7th grade reading class, the 28-year-old teacher leads a small group of nine students through the nuances of Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred. As a City Year corps member walks around helping individual students, Tarver asks her students to explain what Hughes means when he writes about “a raisin in the sun” and to compare his points to their aspirations to become pro athletes and lawyers.

The students in her class are what the school and district refer to as “ones and twos,” a reference to low FCAT scores. Tarver says the poem is on a seventh-grade level but broken down in a way that it addresses the concepts the students are struggling with.

“I have high expectations and so do they, so just because they’re in my low reading class doesn’t mean I can’t do what a regular language arts teacher is doing,” Tarver says. “They struggle with reading, but that doesn’t mean they can’t think.”

Tarver loves her school. She is driven, the kind of teacher McKinney and the school district have often sought out to overhaul the school’s staff. Veteran teachers committed to the school remain hugely important, McKinney said. But since last year, Allapattah Middle has changed over at least a quarter of its faculty with newly minted teachers.

Recruiting teachers is among the many efforts by Miami-Dade’s Education Transformation Office, a data-centric arm of the school district created to boost historically under-performing schools. The office, through millions in funding and grants, also establishes support services like City Year, trains teachers and administrators and makes district curriculum gurus available around the clock.

Yaset Fernandez, an ETO administrator who works closely with Allapattah Middle, says the district does its best to support struggling schools.

“Ms. McKinney is under a tremendous amount of pressure,” he said. “That ladder of pressure goes all the way up to the superintendent and down to the third-grader taking the FCAT.”

At Allapattah Middle, test scores are everywhere. In Tarver’s class, pie charts show how her struggling first period class has progressed. In the beginning of the year, only 9 percent of the class would pass the FCAT.

Come winter, that number jumped to 30 percent.

Drill and Kill

Students’ feelings about testing are mixed. And the pressures of the FCAT aren’t explicit to all of them. But they know they’re supposed to pass the tests.

“I’m afraid I might not do too well,” said Kiana Jefferson, the soft-spoken sixth-grader.

Still, many know their scores by heart, and they take pride in how far they’ve climbed.

“The first time I tried I got a 27” percent score, said Camron Grant. “The next time, I got an 87.”

The school’s teachers and administrators push testing strategies but say they don’t “teach to the test.” They worry about “drill and kill,” and creating testing anxiety. Parents worry about it too.

“I don’t want to be just focused on passing the FCAT,” said Quanesha Green, who considered moving her 12-year-old daughter to private school to avoid Florida’s testing system but believes like she is learning at Allapattah Middle.

During a meeting with their PRIDE group, teachers Kiki Bertani and Katie Fuson asked students to pump themselves up by writing a message to read Monday morning before the FCAT and to make up an FCAT rap.

Bertani said getting students to care about the lessons they’re learning is crucial. This year, when she taught a lesson about income — and how it rises depending on the type of degree a worker holds — there weren’t any problems holding students’ attention.

“They want a way out,” Bertani said. “They don’t want to remain here.”