Photo: Doral Academy
Breaking barriers in education with Innovation
SEVEN YEARS AGO, the Doral Academy, a collection of public charter schools built on a former industrial site next to Florida’s Turnpike in Miami-Dade County, decided to tear down the wall — a fence, actually — that separated the academy’s middle school from its high school.
In removing that barrier, Doral Academy established a unified 6-12 campus. Technically, the middle and high schools remained distinct institutions, but the student body became one — with children assigned to classes based on knowledge and ability — rather than merely age.
“We were kind of losing kids along the way. We were getting kids into ninth grade that weren’t prepared so we said, ‘Why don’t we combine the middle and high school?’ ” says Carlos Ferralls, principal of Doral Academy, which also includes two smaller, specialized institutions: A technology- themed middle school and an arts- and entertainment-themed high school. “Now students in sixth grade are sitting with high school students.”
The move, he says, has worked: Last year, Doral Academy had one of the highest advanced placement passing rates in Miami-Dade County. The school proctored 2,200 exams, and students passed at a rate of 63%.
Ferralls says that willingness to experiment is a hallmark of Doral Academy.
Doral’s strategies are also emblematic of the broader school system in Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school district and also one of its most innovative.
The county, for instance, has embraced the extensive use of charter schools, such as the Doral Academy. It has more than two dozen charter high schools alone.
Miami-Dade has also been a big proponent of themed and specialty schools, with institutions such as the Design and Architecture High School, International Studies Charter High School and the MAST Academy.
“Miami-Dade has done a masterful job of those,” says Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette.
And the district is investing roughly $20 million a year teaching foreign languages to elementary school students — more than every other district in Florida combined.
The education world has taken notice. In 2012, the district won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, which is awarded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and has been likened to the Oscar, Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for education. Two years later, Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade superintendent since September 2008, was named National Superintendent of the Year. And earlier this year, Carvalho was a winner of the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education awarded by Arizona State University.
The McGraw judges noted that more than 70% of Miami-Dade’s roughly 360,000 public school students live in poverty. Collectively, the students come from 160 countries and speak 56 languages.
A New Approach to Discipline
FOUR YEARS AGO, the Okaloosa County School District was one of the harshest places in Florida when it came to student discipline.
The Panhandle school district handed out more than 3,000 suspensions during the 2012-13 school year, which meant 5,699 days of lost instruction for those students. What’s more, the county had a particularly severe policy — unique in Florida, according to civil-rights activists — that prohibited suspended students from making up the school work they missed; students automatically got zeroes on any tests, labs or homework they missed during their suspensions. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint against the district with the federal government.
Okaloosa County has since overhauled its approach to student discipline. The district has stopped suspending children for most infractions — talking back to teachers, fighting for non-serial offenders, profanity — and instead places them into what it calls a student training program (STP). The STP students remain at school for the entire school day, must complete lesson plans that focus on their behavior and suggest ways to improve. The kids are also given the assignments from all of their classes and time to complete them.
The district spends more than $1 million annually on the STP program, including hiring trained monitors at each of its schools to oversee the classes. The results: The number of out-of-school suspensions the district enforces has fallen 84% to 297 last year. The district now leads non-charter schools in Florida with just 1.8 suspensions per thousand students, far below the statewide average of 7. 2 per thousand.
“I couldn’t believe when I came here how much instruction time we lost. I said, ‘No way, we’re not doing this,’ ” says Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, who was elected in 2012 and implemented the student training program the following year.
Even some of the district’s harshest critics applaud its progress. “I haven’t seen a single district (elsewhere in Florida) doing anything like this,” says Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They’re actually addressing the behavior, and that’s a good thing.”
Whitaker says his organization still has concerns with the county, including the racial disparity in suspensions (black students are still more than twice as likely as white students to be suspended) and the district’s policy of removing some chronically misbehaving students from their regular schools and sending them to a charter academy.
In addition, students who are suspended out of school still get zeroes on their work and can’t make up assignments. County school officials say that decades-old policy was implemented in hopes of making the threat of a suspension more of a deterrent to students. Jackson says she has discussed potential changes with school board members; in the meantime, she says students suspended out of school are encouraged to request extra-credit assignments from their teachers when they return to school — and teachers are encouraged to give them extra-credit opportunities.
“In my mind, the suspension from school — and not being able to attend any activities — should be the punishment,” Jackson says. “But when you take away their ability to be successful academically, that’s double jeopardy to me.”
Jackson and other Okaloosa County officials say the success of the STP program — keeping more students in class rather than piling up zeros — has been a big driver of overall improvement for the school district. Okaloosa County ranks third among Florida’s 67 school districts last year in the percentage of schools that earned an A and had no schools below a grade C.
“I want children here learning,” Jackson says.