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Do what’s best for the children

Data showing rising third-grade reading scores are proof Superintendent Terry Connor’s changes are producing positive results.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. June 6, 2024
  • Sarasota
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In November 2022, I made a formal motion to lead this school district on a different path. 

As a former teacher, principal and executive director in our schools, this community gave me enormous opportunities to learn and grow. Throughout those years, I held myself accountable for providing excellence in student performance results and academic programs, and that required making tough decisions and leading change.  

None of those challenges was as difficult as the one in November of 2022. 

When you have years of practice understanding local school district operations and are entrusted with your community’s most precious resource, do you look the other way when faced with a clear decision and an organized force of resistance?  

Getting to the silver lining of success requires driving through the storm.

Even with 27 years of serving this community and gaining a deep understanding of systems for success, I was taken by surprise with a new force to be reckoned with in 2017. That variable quickly permeated our school system and community with sound bites, rhetoric, new priority ideologies and poison pen articles.  

School Board Chair Karen Rose offers a speech.
Photo by Ian Swaby

It didn’t operate from objective data, trends in performance or research-based best practices. It posed the greatest threat to student achievement to date — politics in our schools, board room and in organized public comment.

Grade 3 reading performance is the greatest predictor of academic success through grade 12 for every individual child. It paves the way for comprehending science, history and math. If you cannot read at grade level as a third grader, catching up and academic success are near impossible.  

That is so important that the Florida Department of Education now has Grade 3 English Language Arts performance results as a stand-alone measure in the formula for calculating school grades. 

To that end, I am incredibly proud of our “A” School District Grade since the inception of grades in 2004. That “A” Grade, however, camouflaged the fact that more than 30% of our grade 3 students could not read at grade level.

In 2020, when I started my tenure on the board, I immediately focused on student performance data and trends in achievement, particularly grade 3 reading. Data was difficult to access, and that made no sense.  

Reading for grade 3 students was in decline, and COVID was the fall guy. But why was our school district’s relative ranking in state achievement results in decline when every school district faced the challenges of COVID? Why were other school districts able to maintain student performance achievement results and in some cases even improve their performance?  

One of our elementary schools went from a “C” School Performance Grade to an “A.” With Tim Enos, Bridget Ziegler and Robyn Marinelli supporting a change in November of 2022, we embarked on a different path holding ourselves accountable for a laser focus on academic achievement.

Results are coming in 10 months after new CEO, Superintendent Terry Connor, took the lead role in our school district.  

Superintendent Terry Connor offers a speech.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Immediately after beginning his position in August 2023, Superintendent Connor began a 100-day review of all district operations. Several executive level staff were required to reapply and interview for their positions. 

The review was extensive and thorough:

Reading programs were evaluated using data to assess their impact on student achievement. Systems of accountability were put in place and hardwired. Every school was placed on a schedule to meet with district staff to progress monitor student achievement using data and a continuous improvement model. Research-based science of reading programs were implemented.  

New legislation regarding school choice stopped being viewed as a threat to public education. Instead, it became competition in the drive to make Sarasota County Schools the top pick for our families.  

Exceptional Student Education services were analyzed, and results were embedded in the new strategic plan. 

Intervention strategies and discipline needs have been revamped to support a data driven model for improvement. The social issues emphasized in the previous strategic plan that were difficult to measure were removed as priorities.

The testing results under Superintendent Conner are now in, and they have exceeded expectations. 

Our 3rd Grade Reading scores have increased by an unheard of 7% in one year. What’s more, if you exclude charter schools, the district increase is 14%.  

Our new Strategic Plan prioritizes academic achievement using data and a continuous improvement model. 

Plans for Studer Training will increase customer service with measurable results for our schools, staff and community. Innovative programs like the new Agriculture Academy will be a state and national model for the importance of “Farm to Table.”  

Career training programs for students have multiplied and are designed to meet local workforce needs.  

Change is difficult, and leading it is a huge challenge. But I could not be prouder of our students, staff and schools. I am most thankful for the leadership of Superintendent Connor.    

Drive through the political agendas and focus on the Silver Lining!  

Karen Rose is the chair of the Sarasota County School Board. She is running for reelection in 2024 to her District 2 seat.


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