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Lehigh schools make improvements, but more work needs to be done

July 31, 2019
By MEGHAN BRADBURY ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Three schools serving the Lehigh Acres area - one elementary, one middle and one high - improved their school grade during the 2018-2019 school year.

River Hall Elementary School and Harns Marsh Middle School each earned a "B" from the state compared to last year's C.

East Lee County High School improved to a C from a D, taking them out of the state mandate.

"I worked at East a few years back when we were in the DA (Differentiated Accountability) status. We have to be very careful to stay out and move up. Maintaining it sometimes is a challenge," District 5 school board member and chair Gwynetta Gittens said. "I'm sure with things we have in place and the changes coming up that we will be able to work hard in doing that."

There were two schools that went down a grade, Varsity Lakes Middle School and Riverdale High School. Both schools dropped a letter grade from a B last year to a C in the most recent ratings.

The Alva School and Veterans Park Academy for the Arts maintained a B school grade. G. Weaver Hipps Elementary School, Harns Marsh Elementary School, Lehigh Elementary School, Mirror Lakes Elementary School, Sunshine Elementary School, Tortuga Preserve Elementary School, Lehigh Acres Middle School and Lehigh Acres Senior High maintained a C school grade.

Gittens refers to District 5 as "the forgotten district" due to it having the largest proportion of schools with students who are economically and/or academically disadvantaged.

"We have the most over crowded and most portables," she said of the schools. "If you took all the portables that we are using now and all the teachers that do not have a classroom . . . you took all those numbers together, we could, tomorrow, fill two more schools."

She said although there is a high school coming up next year in Lehigh Acres, as well as a middle and elementary school another year after that, the facilities should have been in place a long time ago.

With the challenges, Gittens said that those schools that increased their school grades is absolutely excellent. Harns Marsh Middle School, for example, has eight to 12 portables and at least that many teachers who operate from a cart going from classroom to classroom because of the lack of space.

"When I look at a school like that and they raise their grade, that is fabulous, that is commendable," Gittens said.

She went on to say that any of the elementary schools that made gains is exceptional because anywhere from 93 to 100 percent of the students are "disadvantaged."

"That's the thing people need to look at. They are doing what they do with the majority of them being disadvantaged students," Gittens said. "East Zone schools have a plethora of Level One (students). Some schools have 90 percent, or more, of Level One."

The levels on the state Florida Standards Assessments test range from 1 to 5: inadequate, below satisfactory, satisfactory, proficient and mastery. A Level 1 score means the student is "highly likely to need substantial support for the next grade/course." Level 3, satisfactory, is considered a passing score.

Gittens said if the child does not pass, the child is retained in the same grade. When a child is kept at that same level, the score then looks good because that child had it twice.

"I continue to fight for equity and resource equity with the schools that have to take care of these disadvantaged kids. They come with different problems," she said.

When she taught, Gittens said she learned that the students shift from their grandparents, to their aunt and uncles houses during the week while their parents worked.

"You have to meet them with that relationship level first," she said of the students. "We need resources to do that."

Gittens said she would like to tackle this issue from early childhood. She said a child in a disadvantaged area may not have the opportunity to add books to their personal libraries and have a parent to read them every night.

"Early childhood preparation for the child and the parent," is something she would like to see happen, she added.

Gittens went on to say that she has seen programs like this across the nation where parents are taught what they can do for their child to better prepare them for school. The child is also included, within someone there to help guide them.

"The disadvantaged kids want the same things in life as everyone else. How do we get it to them?" Gittens asked. "If we don't look at the process and how we are helping all children equally across the board, then we are going to keep repeating that. Every kid comes out looking the same, but they don't start the same. It's not that these kids cannot learn. It's not it at all. We have to find what it is to help them get over that hump. We have to be able to tap into 'how can I teach this child to be successful?' because it is not cookie cutter."

The School District of Lee County had 18 schools increase their school grades, one of which was Trafalgar Elementary School by two grades.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeff Spiro said the great school grades were accomplished through a really clear road map, instructional guides and a tiered support system of what they want students to know and be able to do. In other words, there are a variety of different systems provided to meet the need of the whole child.

The results stated that 60 percent of traditional Lee County public schools, which did not include charter schools, earned an "A" or "B," which was an increase of 8 percent from the previous year. In addition, the district maintained a "B" grade for the sixth year in a row and moved three percentage points of an "A" grade.

A total of 55 district schools maintained their letter grades, while seven schools dropped, a decrease of 50 percent from the previous year. Eighteen schools increased their letter grade.

The School District of Lee County is the only district of the top 10 largest in Florida that did not have any "D" or "F" schools.

"When you look at the work that has been done over the last four to six years . . . that, to me, is remarkable," Spiro said.

The school district has gone from 12 DA schools to none since Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins became the superintendent.



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