Alachua County schools excel in the 2003 school year

Published: Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 9, 2004 at 11:44 p.m.

Happy New Year! I am really pleased to share accomplishments and highlights of the past year.

Alachua County public schools made great strides in 2003 and is ranked in the top 15 districts in the state with a district grade of "A."

Our students made strong academic gains resulting in dramatically higher school grades. Last year, 51 percent of Alachua County schools were awarded a grade of "A" by the Department of Education, up from 45 percent the previous year. Alachua County students surpassed state averages for academic achievement.

Duval Elementary School achieved especially impressive student learning gains and improved its grade from an "F" to an "A." Duval was the only school in Florida to make such an improvement.

Ten schools in Alachua County improved their school grade by one or more letter grades. All Alachua County schools achieved a grade of "A," "B," or "C" last year.

Beyond FCAT school grades, federal legislation requires the calculation of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) through No Child Left Behind . The AYP is a federal measure more stringent than the FCAT. Only about 10 percent of schools statewide met this measure. Sixteen percent of Alachua County schools met the goal of AYP.

Alachua County schools have long been known for excellence and innovation. Noted 2003 highlights include the following:

Dr. Steven Noll, a teacher at Sidney Lanier School, was recognized as one of the nation's most innovative educators in the 2003 Education's Unsung Heroes Awards Program for his innovative teaching methods, creative educational projects and ability to make a positive influence on the children he teaches.

Ann Mullally, the principal at Chiles Elementary School, was named Florida Distinguished Principal for 2003 by the National Association of Elementary and Middle Schools for her outstanding achievement, especially her work in developing a University of Florida master's program for students with backgrounds other than education.

Howard Bishop Middle School is one of only 50 schools nationwide designated as a NASA Explorer School. In March, Alachua County students will be able to speak to the astronauts on the space station.

Sixty-four teachers are certified from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This rigorous certification process includes portfolios, student work samples, an analysis of classroom teaching and student learning and an extensive examination. These teachers receive additional monetary awards of up to approximately $8,000.

Last year students passed 2,154 Advanced Placement exams, an increase of more than 216 percent over the last several years. Alachua County students passed more Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests and earned more IB diplomas per capita than any district in Florida - nearly four times the state average.

In addition, Gainesville High School is offering courses leading to the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE). The Cambridge academic certification is recognized worldwide and will allow students to earn college credit through high school courses.

Alachua Elementary School won first place in the statewide Quiz Bowl competition for the fourth year in a row. The student team competed against public and private schools from all over Florida, answering questions drawn from literature, mathematics, science, social studies and current events.

The School Board of Alachua County, along with the oards and trustees of the School Board of Bradford County, Santa Fe Community College and University of Florida participated in the historic inaugural celebration of the K-20 seamless educational partnership.

The School Board of Alachua County was awarded the designation of Master Board by mastering the leadership team's governance roles for enhancing student achievement, fostering connections, empowering collaboration between schools and community and creating a learning organization to advance excellence in public education.

Again, five Alachua County Schools met the rigorous criteria to be designated Five Star Schools: Chiles Elementary, Ft. Clarke Middle, A. Quinn Jones, Terwilliger Elementary and Wiles Elementary Schools achieved 100 percent in the categories of business partnerships, family involvement, volunteers, student community service and school advisory councils.

Once again the district was named as a winner of "What Parents Want" Award by SchoolMatch, the nation's largest school consulting firm. This award places the district among the top 15 percent of districts nationwide that meet parent-established criteria and criteria such as student-teacher ratio and student achievement.

Eastside High School Institute of Culinary Arts did it again. An Eastside High School Culinary Arts student placed first in the National Gingerbread competition, with a first place prize of $12,000 and scholarships totaling more than $93,000. Nine Eastside High School Culinary Arts students earned more than $560,000 in scholarships at various competitions.

In addition to these accomplishments, a comprehensive student attendance policy and rezoning plan was developed and approved for implementation in the fall 2004. The rezoning process involved countless hours of input and analyses with extensive community involvement and support.

In conjunction with rezoning, the district is providing innovative educational opportunities for students by expanding magnet programs to include the fine arts magnet at Duval Elementary, a gifted magnet at Williams Elementary and the Math/Science Technology magnet at Stephen Foster Elementary.

In preparation for implementation of the constitutional amendment requiring Universal Pre-Kindergarten, and in collaboration with UF, plans for an early childhood center at Prairie View are currently underway.

The district's choice plan becomes effective in the fall of 2004. Magnet and academy programs continue to be popular options for school choice with 1,200 students in middle and high schools served in these programs. District staff, working with the Gainesville City Commission, are planning an Entrepreneurial Magnet program for Eastside High School with eventual pre-magnet preparation occurring at Lincoln Middle School. In collaboration with Junior Achievement, this program will prepare students to become business owners.

The first year of the constitutional amendment for class size reduction was implemented with a smooth transition. For 2003, school districts across the state were required to reduce the district average class size by two students in all grades. Updated enrollment data indicate that Alachua County met the requirements for class size reduction.

We continue to strive toward an adequate compensation package for all employees. Teachers and employee salaries are generally still below the state average. Efforts are under way to raise salaries to an appropriate level.

History has proven that we cannot rely solely on the legislature for funding. The Alachua County Public Schools Foundation stepped up to the plate with increased support for our students.

The Foundation generously sponsored close to 3,000 students in the Black Stallion Literacy Project. And it invested $250,000 in foundation scholarships for the class of 2003 and more than $22,000 in Foundation for Success Grants to schools.

Alachua County has the right to be proud of its school system. The business of public education is everyone's business. I value your input and invite you to share your thoughts or concerns, positive or constructive, about your public school system.

Mary Chambers is superintendent of Alachua County schools.

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