Few principals know better than Sandra Edwards the dizzying effect of leading a small, poor elementary school through the zigs and zags of Florida’s school-grading system.
In her first four years at the helm of Washington Elementary, the state labeled the Riviera Beach school a C school, an A school, an A school again, and a D school.
Then, in 2016, came the gut-punch: an F grade, the first in the school’s history. On state exams, student’s reading scores had dropped, math scores had dropped, science scores had plummeted.
As the head of a high-poverty school, Edwards was used to fighting uphill. Her students learn in an aging, 53-year-old campus that the school district says is in “poor” condition.
With just 350 students, it’s one of the school district’s smallest schools, and 90 percent of her students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches.
Still, when word of the F grade came from Tallahassee, Edwards was beside herself.
“I was very shocked and hurt,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I felt like I let my community down.”
The veteran administrator did not despair, though. She had lifted her school up before – from a C in 2012 to two consecutive A’s – and she vowed to do it again.
“I’m not an F principal,” she said.
What followed was a year of redoubled efforts at the Riviera Beach school, which sits in the middle of a neighborhood of modest single-family homes on West 30th Street.
Reforms pay off
At Washington, the school day was extended by a half-hour, thanks to a state requirement for schools with low reading scores.
To reduce its high number of student referrals, a new system was implemented to reward students for good conduct, letting them earn points they could redeem for prizes.
Perhaps most crucially, Edwards hired tutors to “double down” in math and reading classes. The new educators provided an extra pair of eyes and ears to teach and ensure that students stayed on task.
The hard work paid off. When the latest school grades were announced in June, Washington Elementary had skyrocketed three full letter grades -- from an F to a B. It was one of just 12 F schools statewide to jump by three grades or more.
As at most high-poverty schools, the student test scores remain low compared with the state overall, but the improvements were significant.
Last year, 36 percent of Washington Elementary’s test-taking students passed the state reading exam, up nine points from the previous year. Fifty-three percent passed the math exam, a 21 point jump.
As dramatic as those hikes were, they were dwarfed by the growth in students’ progress. Even though most Washington Elementary students still weren’t reading on grade level, test scores showed far more were improving from year to year.
In reading, for instance, 63 percent of students demonstrated significant learning gains on the exam.
The growth was even greater with the most struggling students. Among the bottom quarter of the school’s test-takers, a whopping 83 percent made learning gains, up from just 30 percent the previous year.
It was that progress that made Washington Elementary a county leader. No county elementary school did a better job of boosting the reading scores of its most struggling students. Statewide, only 19 schools outperformed it.
‘An exceptional principal’
In recognition of the school’s achievements, Palm Beach County’s public school system last month named Edwards the county’s principal of the year, with Superintendent Robert Avossa saying that her decision-making and relationships with students were “the true mark of an exceptional principal.”
It’s a meaningful recognition for Edwards, who grew up in Palm Beach County and graduated from Spanish River High School.
But it’s also a repeat performance. Edwards claimed the principal of the year mantle in 2014, after raising Washington’s grade from a C to an A.
The roller-coaster ride underscores a quirk of the state’s school-grading system. While having a small school makes it easier for Edwards to know and relate to each student, it also makes her campus more susceptible to big swings in its school grade.
For instance, Edwards blames 2016’s plummet to F status on the unexpected departure of a handful of teachers over the summer, right before the start of the school year.
Blindsided, Edwards had to rush to hire new teachers at the last minute, leaving little time to get them up to speed on the school’s teaching strategies.
This year, she is hoping to build on last year’s progress.
It’s a challenge that she said is made more difficult by the fact that - as a result of the boost in the school’s reading scores - it no longer has a state-mandated extended school day, something she said her teachers miss.
Edwards, though, said she is determined to press ahead.
“I have a very high expectation,” she said.