Schooling in SWFL

How Three Elementary Schools in Fort Myers are Working to Achieve Academic Success

Three elementary schools sit within a few miles of each other. One with a “B” grade by state standards, and two with a “D”. All three schools have struggled with “F” grades in recent years — so what’s the difference?

James Stephens International Academy went from an “F” grade to a “B” grade in one year — the greatest one-year turnaround in Lee County history.

“F” grade to a “B” — the Greatest One-Year turnaround in Lee County history

But, the real answer is they are all improving in their own ways and this isn’t an easy process.

We talked to principals from all three schools and looked at how in line they were with the county district’s improvement plan — Vision 2020.

Principal Ken Savage at James Stephens Elementary brought in new staff, changed learning plans, and extended school hours to increase academic success and the school’s overall culture.

“Seven years of being one of the worst schools in Lee County, they earned that reputation,” Savage said. “Now, we’ve had to really celebrate and own changing that.”

All of these changes were in line with Vision 2020 — the district’s plan to:

Increase student achievement
Engage families and the community
Workforce – hire the highest quality teachers
Become a model of continuous improvement organization

Essentially, they want no more “F” or “D” grade schools by the year 2020.

According to Denise Carlin, the Director of Strategic Planning & Community Engagement with the Lee School District, schools now sit down with each child to create an individualized learning plan.

Lee County ranked 35th out of 60 counties in terms of academic ranking. In one year they went from 35th to 30th.

Right down the road from James Stephens, Manatee Elementary is close to reaching a “C” grade after sitting at an “F” — and many of the staff attribute this to principal Ashley La Mar. He started in July 2016 as a turnaround principal, and his first task was to fill
the nearly 33 teaching vacancies.

In the 2016-2017 enrollment year, Manatee went up 79 points in the grading system — bringing them from a low “F” grade to a “D” — two points away from a “C.” For comparison, the average Lee County school increased by 16 points.

“Children want to read their essays on the news,” La Mar said. “These are children that a couple of years ago didn’t even want to hold a pencil.”

A lot of the success at Manatee was thanks to a change in culture among teachers, students, and staff.

“Everywhere I go I’m proud to let people know I’m a part of Manatee Elementary,” La Mar said.

However, Tice Elementary just minutes away already had a strong culture and sense of community. They haven’t dealt with nearly as much staff turnover — so why are they struggling with keeping a “C” grade after dropping to a “D” during the 2016-2017 enrollment year?

“It is challenging academic community,” Tice principal Ronda
Amaya said.

The majority of the students speak another language, mainly Spanish, in the home.

“Normally our school…it does look a little lower than others in terms of straight on proficiency,” Amaya said. “But usually we’re higher in terms of gains.”

Tice has started multiple new afterschool programs and extended the school day to help raise success.

And if you’re wondering why the district doesn’t just move students from Tice and Manatee to James Stephens since that school is only at about half capacity — the choice is often up to parents and district zoning. Both Tice and Manatee are at or near full capacity,
so new families moving into that zone will most likely end up at James Stephens depending on grade and availability.

For now, the schools continue to do what they can to help their students grow.

“When we have children that leave elementary literate, they go on to do great things in middle and high school,” Carlin said.