Insiders: Hamilton County Schools Working to Boost Grades

Hamilton County Schools
Posted at 11:00 PM, Apr 21, 2016
and last updated 2017-12-13 05:24:25-05

HAMILTON COUNTY, FL (WTXL) -- After looking at school district grades in Gadsden and Jefferson counties, a three-part "Insiders" series wraps up in Hamilton County.

Since 2004, Hamilton County hasn't earned a district grade higher than a "C." The district received a "D" in 2015 -- after two straight years with an "F."

Superintendent Tom Moffses says the grades don't tell the full story of what goes on in the classroom.

"Let's quit tinkering with all the scoring every year," he said. "It's quit changing every time we turn around. Give everybody a fighting chance to hit the mark."

Moffses admits the district hasn't done well for the past several years -- but he says it's hard to improve when the standards keep changing.

"It would be nice to have a set target for a consistent amount of time -- not a complete moving target," Moffses said, referring to the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) implemented this new test in 2015 to replace the former FCAT 2.0.

When WTXL asked to speak with an FDOE spokesperson on camera, the Department referred us to a letter sent to parents from Commissioner Pam Stewart in 2014.

In part, it reads, "This is the best choice for Florida students...this tool will give every student the opportunity to be college and career ready."

"It appears to become more punitive now than diagnostic," Moffses said.

Looking at how the district performed in 2015...

- North Hamilton Elementary School: "D" -- two points from a "C."

- Central Hamilton Elementary School: "D" -- 17 points from a "C."

- South Hamilton Elementary School: "D" -- seven points from a "C."

- Hamilton County High School: incomplete

An incomplete grade is given when less than 95 percent of students are tested. At the high school, just 92 percent took the test.

"I would like to see more alternative options for our students, because they don't all perform well on the FSA," Moffses said.

Despite the district's issues with testing, the goal is to address how students can perform better in the classroom.

A substitute teacher -- who didn't want to be on camera because she still works in the district -- says students are distracted -- with cell phones and no motivation to do well.

Moffses has another theory.

"We found out a lot of our kids come to school hungry. You know, a basic need," he said.

Based on low family income, the district qualified for a program to provide free meals to all students.

They took things a step further -- with breakfast in the classroom for the past three years.

"It gives us the opportunity to teach the students," Moffses said, "and for them to gain that knowledge."

The superintendent acknowledges a high turnover rate for teachers -- some staying for just a year or two.

So, with a mixed bag of experience, the district retrained all of them this past year.

"They can collaborate much better," Moffses said. "Their learning communities seem to be a little bit more engaged, so we're very hopeful in how that's going to turn out."

There's an effort to not only keep teachers here -- but to invest in future ones already in the county.

The district is working on a program to add Hamilton High School grads to the staff once they've earned their college degrees.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to make some headway there and grow our own, so that some of our own students come back here to assist," Moffses said.

While the district is in the process of changing the academic culture, the superintendent admits it can only do so much. It's up to students, parents and the community to step up, too.

"Everybody has a vested interest in this," Moffses said. "What we ask all the time -- 'Come, help us. Come, join us.'"

The district admits turning grades around won't happen overnight, but the goal is to go from being one of the lowest performing districts in the state to scoring in the top half overall.

The Insiders will follow up with Gadsden, Jefferson and Hamilton counties -- once grades are in for the 2016 school year.