Saving DRS

Seventeen students wait intently for the question to come. As instructor Nzinga Mack scribbles a math problem on the board chalk dust drifts to the floor.

“Okay guys, what do we do first,” Mack says as she pulls away from the board to reveal an algebra problem. “We have to…”

“Backsolve,” yelled the class of seniors at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School. The class was referring to the tactic of inputting numbers into the problem in order to get the answer. Surprised, but equally happy, Mack extended the class a colloquial affirmation.

“Exactly,” extols Mack, the instructor of the SAT Academy sponsored by Kaplan testing Service.

“It made me smile,” Mack said. “I had only been there for a few weeks, but they were grasping the material.”

Mack and Kaplan are a part of a bigger plan to elevate FAMU DRS to one of the state’s more reputable educational institutions.

Bad report card

The administration at FAMU DRS was placed under a public magnifying glass in 2007 after the Florida Department of Education gave the school an ‘F’ grade for poor performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. According to test results released by the state, only 38 percent of DRS students were reading at or above grade level, 35 percent were at or above grade level in math, and 16 percent were at above grade level in science. Students only showed proficiency with 82 percent of students meeting state writing standards.

“When I first came here I knew what the situation was,” said FAMU DRS Superintendent Ronald Holmes. “I knew we had to make daily progress to improve not only on the FCAT, but academically, athletically, and socially.”

Holmes was tabbed to rescue the failing school on Dec. 31, 2007. Holmes, the brother of FAMU trustee R.B Holmes, was selected by FAMU President James Ammons and the board of trustees to serve as superintendent for the kindergarten through 12th grade school.

The prodigious task of enhancing DRS was rooted in improving student test scores. Even prior to receiving the low state score, FAMU DRS was marred by poor academic performance. In the past 10 years, the school has failed to register a grade above a ‘C’ from the state. Since 1999, the school has received four D’s, an F, and five C’s. But it was the failing grade of 2007 that alarmed state officials.

According to a document from the FDLOE, due to its poor performance, FAMU DRS was to submit a school and district plan for improvement during the current school year. The school has to generate three progress reports a year for the state department.

The university developed a task force in May to determine where the school’s deficiencies lay. An audit revealed the school suffered with “declining enrollment, extremely high turnover rate (faculty and administration), declining performance on standardized test (ACT, FCAT, and SAT), lack of commitment, support and involvement by the university’s leadership, and a damaged reputation for being labeled as a failing school.”

These findings helped establish the schools blueprint for improvement. Holmes along with his new administration put together a three-year action plan that he said aims to make FAMU DRS a National School of Excellence.

“We have a plan, which is the most important thing,” Holmes said. “But a part of the plan is not just to say it, but to execute. We want to reach our ultimate goal which is to be recognized a s a Blue Ribbon school.”

Holmes’ plan outlines 78 initiatives that he and the university administration plan to implement within three years.

Holmes goal of making FAMU DRS a Blue Ribbon school means the school would be recognized nationally by the U.S. department of education for academic excellence.

According to the Florida Department of Education Bureau of Improvement a school must “make a significant improvement in the demonstrate significant improvement for reading and math for all students.”

The standard for improvement is set according to the No Child Left Behind Act, a government mandate that says schools must make adequate yearly progress or provide alternate programs to help facilitate better learning opportunities. The bill was passed in January of 2002 and FAMU DRS has yet to meet the standards since the bill’s inception.

But Holmes said his plan will not only fulfill those AYP standards but put the school among the states elite. His first initiative was to establish learning academy, or programs that will enhance the test taking skills needs to excel on the ACT, SAT, and the FCAT. Kaplan agreed to host FCAT and SAT preparatory sessions for free, a decision Mack said came because of an obvious need to aid struggling schools. Student’s would normally pay $1,000 for similar Kaplan services.

“We understand that it is a process,” Mack said. “We need to teach students how to get to the next level. We teach them not only how to take the test, but to know the content as well. It’s a mix of strategy and knowledge.”

Mack said students have been receptive to the SAT training.

“They have responded very well,” Mack said. “They are bright kids. I taught high school for six years and these kids are no different than the others. It’s just a matter of seeing how the react differently to questions.”

The FCAT is a test devised to uphold academic standards established by the state. Standards are benchmarked by the sunshine state standards. Proficiency is determined by criterion-referenced test in math, reading, science, and writing. The cost of administering the test has risen to $19.44 per student as opposed to $5.40 that it cost to test students 10 years ago.

With the rising cost of administering the standardized cost, having a functioning staff has become imperative to the schools development. The task force recognized a “lack of care” in teachers at the university, which prompted Holmes to hire a new administration including the hiring of two new principals in Adriane Peters and Angeline Rivers.

“You can say we have a new administration,” Holmes said. “And now we have made an effort to get support from the university. I met will all deans from 13 schools and colleges to enlist their help.”

A New beginning

Holmes said DRS has the opportunity to compete with other university sponsored schools in the state. Neighboring lab school Florida State University school received an ‘A,’ as did the University of Florida P.K. Yonge D.R.S., and Florida Atlantic A.D. Henderson D.R.S.

Holmes first effort to secure better test scores for students was the introduction of after school academies, which are programs that aim to help students pass standardized test.

“Right now the academies are for students who scored ones and two’s on the FCAT,” Holmes said. ” So everyday from 3:30 to 5:30 we have those academies for students so that they can secure the three’s and four’s they need on the test.”

The additional academic support has helped fuel new sense of hope in many students.

“They are serious about us passing that test,” said 16-year-old freshman Nakia Love. “Aside from our normal schedule, we dedicate time for it after school and during school.”

Love said she ignored the stigma of the school’s past poor performance when she enrolled. “I always wanted to go to FAMU,” Love said. “Usually when people hear I got to DRS they think it’s like (the movie) “Lean on Me.” But the school sort of motivates you to do well. They really care.”

An element of improvement has come from FAMU presidents James Ammons renewed interest in connecting the school’s main campus to that of the adjoining highs school.

“I think the main thing we need is to generate so academic excitement by putting in place courses and programs that will attract high achieving students to the school,” Ammons said in an interview held in September. “We are making sure that we integrate FAMU DRS into the college of education.”

The state audit also noted a “lack of support from the University.” Ammons said the school will develop a partnership with DRS and the School of Education in the near future.

“We realize the mission to a developmental research school,” Ammons said. “The faculty and students from the college of education will avail themselves to research opportunities at DRS. We are trying to improve ways that we teach the children. That research can be conducted right at the lab school.”

New Building. Renewed Hope

Holmes speaks of it as the school’s crowning jewel.

“Everything that we are talking about with our plan, this will help facilitate it,” says Holmes of the schools new facility, which is currently under construction. The sprawling campus will feature six main buildings, a football field, with an accompanying track, baseball and softball field.

“The new resources and services will prepare our students to go to college and the workforce,” Holmes said. “In addition to that our programs will improve along with student faculty morale.”

The new facility, which cost $24,656,782, will hold up to 476 students. Holmes hopes the new facility will bolster his effort to recruit 300 more students to the university.

Love said the new building has given the school a new outlook.

Everyone is excited about it,” Love said. “FAMU has a different outlook now. We are different than we were a year ago. Now we can prove it.”