School on the Brink

School devoted to FCAT success

Can they do it?

Can Miami Central's students do what their predecessors haven't been able to do for the last five years?

Pass the FCAT.

"We're gonna do more than pass the test, " says freshman Briana Napper. "We're gonna kill it."

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in reading, math and science begin Tuesday and last for two weeks.

It's the culmination of hard work akin to academic boot camp. Since December, students at Central have been going to class on Saturday, spending two hours a day in intensive prep classes and, for the first time in a long time, feeling confident.

"We've been doing everything we can to get them ready for the day of reckoning, " said reading coach Nanette Raska.

For schools across Florida, FCAT scores determine state-issued school grades, which in turn determine the amount of award money a school receives.

Some of the tests are also required for the students to graduate.

But at Central -- and four other low-performing South Florida schools -- the stakes are even higher.

If Central, Edison Senior, Holmes Elementary, Liberty City Elementary and Larkdale Elementary don't get a "D" or better, they will face unprecedented sanctions from the state. Any school that falls short could have to completely revamp its teaching staff -- or even close its doors.

"I don't want my school to close, " said Edline Demajuste, a sophomore at Central. "We can't let that happen."

TRANSFORMATION

Just a few months ago, observers said an improvement of that magnitude would be impossible at a school like Central, which has gotten five F grades in the last five years.

But the school has undergone an intense transformation.

Classrooms now have three, even four teachers. Students are more attentive in class.

Hundreds are attending Saturday school.

Leading the charge is veteran educator Doug Rodriguez, who took over as principal in mid-December.

Rodriguez has labored to change the culture at Central, first by cleaning up the campus, then by instilling discipline.

"I can provide the structure. The teachers can teach, " said Rodriguez, who was named Florida's top principal last year.

"But ultimately, this is [the students'] responsibility."

Last week, four teachers guided 20 sophomores through the multiple-choice section of the reading test.

"Remember, you have to attack this with a purpose in mind, " teacher DeShawn Smith said. "Always read the questions first."

As Smith spoke, the other three teachers walked from student to student, answering any individual questions they had.

It helped Edline, who just last year sweated the reading FCAT.

Not so this year.

"I'm ready, " Edline said. "We've been doing a lot of work on how to eliminate answers. We know what to look for before we start."

Down the hall, science coach Orestes Mayo reviewed the laws of motion with a small group of 11th-graders. He asked what would happen if he collided with a large football player, drawing laughter from the class.

"It doesn't seem that hard anymore, " said Astarote Ridge Antoine, a junior.

FCAT PEP RALLY

On Friday afternoon, hundreds of students crowded into the newly built gym for an FCAT pep rally.

Senior André Young, the drum major, led the marching band in Let's Go, Rockets, one of the school's songs.

The students rose to their feet and sang and danced, as the school's majorettes and dance team performed on the basketball court.

Then, the emcee announced Rodriguez.

The principal, 43, ran into the gym like a basketball coach, jumping up and down and pumping his fist into the air.

"You are about to change the world!" he said, drawing thunderous applause.

Said sophomore class president Dammerick Gibson: "We're feeling great. This is gonna help a lot."

FEELING PRESSURE

But many students say they are feeling pressure, too.

"If the grade doesn't go up, we'll let everyone down, " said Jelecia Marshall, 16, vice president of the sophomore class.

Jelecia's three older siblings graduated from Central. She said they are counting on her to save the school.

"This is major. And it's all up to us."

Even the adults in the building have been under scrutiny.

State and district officials visit frequently. State Commissioner of Education Eric Smith made one of his visits on the day of President Barack Obama's inauguration.

"We have visitors in the building all the time, " said Rodriguez, the principal. "It's definitely a little extra pressure."

Of course, to Rodriguez, it isn't all about test scores and school grades. Rodriguez wants to lay the foundation for lasting change at Central.

"Right now, it isn't a matter of if this school will turn around, " he said. "But when."

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