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Local schools rank behind some small, very poor counties

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of February 2, 2012)

How can the public schools of Indian River County, the ninth most affluent county in the state, rank 30th in scholastic achievement – far behind some of Florida’s smallest and poorest counties?  And do members of the School Board care?

Those were the questions some were asking after recent state rankings surprisingly showed Indian River schools to be the lowest rated of the 30 Florida counties where the schools received “A” grades.  The ranking is based on each district’s total points derived from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores.

This is the first time the state mapped out its scores and gave a numerical ranking to all 67 Florida school districts. State officials say the numerical rankings are important because they allow parents of school-age children, educators and taxpayers to evaluate their school districts.

While barrier island residents have been good to the public school system, pumping more than $34.3 million in a year’s time into Indian River schools in taxes, a comparison between the various districts around the state shows affluence does not appear to be a key to student achievement.

According to U.S. Census data, Indian River’s per capita income is $31,918. Compare that with tiny Gilchrist County, one of the state's poorest, where per capita income is $18,309.

The ranking stunned administrators in the tiny agricultural area, but not in a way most would think.

“I think the surprise was that we were not ranked second,” said Evelyn Barratt, the director of management information services for the Gilchrist County School District.

Gilchrist County has just 2,700 students its public school system and there's just one stoplight in the county.

“We do not have a Millionaires Row here,” said Barratt.

The county’s largest employer is the state’s prison system as Gilchrist is home to Lancaster Correctional Institution. Seventy percent of its students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

Barratt and Gilchrist Superintendent Donald Thomas say more money for the public school system would be nice, but they’ve proved that the district can stand strong in spite of harsh economic realities.

“We are not affluent,” said Thomas. “Sure money helps. Being No. 1 has always been our goal.”

“We may not be a rich county, but we’ve got some good people here and certainly there is nothing more important than a good teacher," Thomas said. "No matter what kind of programs you have, when the students walk in the door and sit down in the classroom, it’s all up to the teacher. We’ve got caring teachers. They really care about the students.”

Another district that ranked comparatively high in student achievement but low in terms of per capita wealth was Dixie County, which came in at the number 12. Its per capita income is even lower at $17,066.

And what do school board members here have to say about this?

“We need to see what our deficiencies are,” said Carol Johnson.  “And I am not looking for excuses.”

Johnson said the board is expected to address the issue Tuesday when it meets for its regularly scheduled roundtable gathering.  In preparation for the meeting, Johnson has requested information from support staff so she and others see what subject areas or issues may have played a part in a less than sterling ranking.

“Am I disappointed? I would have liked to have seen us rank higher,” she said. “I’d like to find out what our deficiencies are and compare it to last year’s (test scores) because I think that it is really important to know where you fit in and figure out where you are going.

“We need the bigger picture to know what we should be focusing on. You cannot just be reactive. You have to be reactive with purpose.”

Board member Matt McCain, who comes from a family of Vero Beach educators, said that while it would have been nice to have a higher ranking on the state scale, he’s very proud of the achievements of the Indian River County public schools.

“I don’t really worry about rankings,” McCain said. ‘I worry about what our district is doing and do we have enough kids that are graduating. We always strive to do better, but there are no bad schools here. We are constantly struggling (with students who individually score at the bottom end) but the top end of the students is competing with anyone in the nation right now.”

But educators in other areas think the rankings are indeed important.

“We’ve worked hard to be at the top,” said Gilchrist County’s Thomas. “It’s all about the kids. It’s not just being No. 1. It knows that if these kids are scoring high, then they are going to graduate. Some people say, ‘Is this teaching to the test?’ I don’t know what that means. There are standards that the state sets and we teach to those standards.”