Guy Grimes, the principal of Freedom Elementary, and his staff were celebrating when the Florida Department of Education released his school's grade.
Freedom Elementary School received its first A rating since Grimes became principal six years ago. The last time the school received an A rating was in 2014.
“As a principal, I’m proud of all the hard work of our students and our teachers,” Grimes said. “It’s kind of like a proud parent when you see your children succeed. It’s so much joy to see all their hard work pay off.”
Several schools across the School District of Manatee County, including seven in East County, saw a fluctuation in their school rating compared to 2019 when the Florida Department of Education last gave official school ratings.
School grades were not given in 2020 as a result of schools having to move to virtual learning due to the pandemic. In 2021, school grades were optional, and only eight Manatee County traditional schools and six charter schools opted to receive a grade.
The School District of Manatee County overall received a B rating for the 2021-2022 school year, maintaining its rating from 2019.
Laurie Breslin, the executive director of curriculum and professional learning for the district, said the district was three percentage points shy of receiving an A rating.
The school district now is ranked 25th in the state, the highest ranking in the district’s history.
“We’re excited our schools did so well,” Breslin said. “We saw a lot of gains in areas that the previous year were under expectations probably due to COVID learning loss, and we found we’ve made up that ground.”
For example, Breslin said the district saw gains in fifth grade reading.
“We saw stronger results than we’ve ever seen in fifth grade reading,” she said. “Our students are heading into sixth grade with strong reading skills that benefit not only in the category of reading but all of their academics.”
Breslin said in the coming school year, the district is focusing on the new Benchmark for Excellent Student Thinking standards in English Language Arts and math. She said the district is focusing on preparing and supporting students, their families and teachers for the implementation of the new standards.
Breslin said the district has offered training every week over the summer except for two weeks to help teachers and administrators prepare for the new standards.
“We’re all using the same materials, accessing the same standards and learning and growing together to build that collective efficacy,” Breslin said. “We’re going to see stronger results district-wide and have a level playing field for all our students to succeed.”
In East County, five schools dropped a grade in their ratings, two schools saw an increase in their ratings and nine schools maintained their ratings from previous years.
Ten East County schools have an A rating, three schools have a B rating and three schools have a C rating.
Grimes said Freedom Elementary School has been making steady progression to its A rating since he became principal. When he started at the school, it had a C rating.
He said when the 2021-2022 school year started, the staff established its values and specific academic goals. The common thread among staff was the focus on relationships.
Grimes said building relationships gives staff an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and be there for each other as resources when someone needs help.
“It’s like you know each other’s hearts,” Grimes said. “If I did well, we celebrate together. If I’m not doing well, who’s my resource to help me. There’s no shame, there’s no blame. When you own something, you’re more willing to ask for help and receive help knowing that the help you get is going to benefit your children.”
In the 2021-2022 school year, Grimes and the staff focused on ensuring students were growing academically because they saw students in the school’s lowest quartile weren’t progressing.
They incorporated strategies in language arts and math classes to help the students who were struggling the most make gains in their academics. For example, Grimes said the school has a partnership with Acaletics, which is a math program to improve math achievement. Students are grouped based on their abilities in math to work on their math skills. Every six weeks, they are evaluated again and moved to a different group based on their progress.
Freedom Elementary saw for the first time in the school’s history that more than 70% of fifth graders were proficient in science. Grimes said this was a result of fifth grade teachers doing more hands-on science lessons with students and using WOZ Ed lessons, which are STEM lessons from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
In the coming year, Grimes said staff will look at data to determine what the school’s next specific goals will be, especially in language arts and math. Students will have extra time in class on language arts where students will be grouped based on reading abilities and matched with a teacher who can best help the student progress. In math, Grimes said many of the school’s third and fourth graders will be in advanced math where they will get all of the fourth grade math curriculum and half of the fifth grade math curriculum in one year.
Other schools, like Braden River Middle School, will be working to increase their school rating after seeing a drop this year.
Braden River Middle was rated a B in 2019 but fell to a C this year. Principal Kimberlain Zenon-Richardson said the rating wasn’t ideal but some students experienced significant learning losses during the two years since the last rating due to the pandemic.
“I can’t say it was a surprise,” Zenon-Richardson said. “Our teachers worked hard over the course of those two years to fill in those gaps while continuing to teach those grade level standards, but what we saw was even when returning to brick and mortar, a lot of kids had attendance issues. When a kid is not here, it’s hard to catch them up.”
Throughout the past two years, Zenon-Richardson said teachers navigated through virtual and hybrid learning and monitored students’ progress. She said not consistently having the face-to-face teaching and attendance gaps due to testing positive, quarantining or any other reason caused students to fall behind. Teachers saw students were catching up, but it wasn’t enough for the school to maintain its B rating.
“We accept our C,” she said. “We are proud of our C. We’re proud of the work that we’ve done. We’re proud of the work the kids have done, and we’re going to move forward.”
In the coming year as construction on the renovation and addition of the school is completed, Zenon-Richardson said a newly renovated school will provide a great learning environment for students.
“We will continue our high expectations for all students and will continue identifying those gaps in learning,” she said. “We will also dig a little deeper into our students’ social and emotional learning needs and make sure they have the skills and tools they need to be able to continue learning and moving along at the right pace.”
Zenon-Richardson said teachers and staff will focus on rigor, relevance and relationships as they maintain their high expectations, ensure learning is relevant to students’ experiences and build positive relationships with students.
The school also will provide more leadership opportunities for students to help them feel empowered and part of the school community.
Academically, the school will have a main focus on reading because it’s needed in every subject.
“We have a schoolwide approach to reading,” Zenon-Richardson said. “Every subject, even our electives, participate in reading instruction or providing that opportunity for students to read, write, listen and speak in every single class. That is how students build their reading ability and learn from others with collaboration. They’re writing their thoughts and that kind of helps us understand their thinking.”
Although school grades can be a large factor for parents to consider when choosing where to send their student to school, Breslin said parents also need to consider what else the schools have to offer such as school culture and climate, extracurriculars and programming.
“As a parent you want to focus on academics, absolutely, but also how do we create well rounded graduates that are ready to face their college or career with the skills they need to be successful in their college and career?”