At West Jacksonville Elementary on a recent
Friday, AmeriCorps volunteer Jonathan Delifus mesmerized a group of
fifth-graders with a simple experiment about fire.
''We're scientists here,'' Delifus told them, as he put vinegar
in a soda bottle, added baking soda and used the carbon monoxide
emitted to extinguish a candle's flame.
Eight students in one of Jacksonville's lowest-performing schools
watched intently, then excitedly recited the three parts of fire:
''Heat - Oxygen - Fuel.''
Delifus is a recent addition to the school, part of a battery of
aid sent in after West Jacksonville made the state's list of
critically troubled schools last year. It's help that seems to be
The school stayed on the state's list this year, though by a slim
margin, marking the third year in a row its fourth-graders have
performed below minimum standards on basic skills and writing tests.
Its scores schoolwide are typically among the lowest in the Duval
County school system.
Ask some school system officials, teachers and parents why, and
they often point to factors beyond the school's control - things
such as poor preparation at home and a lack of parental involvement.
The school is in a run-down, low-income neighborhood. Ninety-six
percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. About 85
percent of the students live in a federally subsidized housing
It has 401 students and 86 PTA members.
''These children come from homes that are not the best,''
kindergarten teacher Pat Tomford said. ''Sometimes they're coming
toschool with baggage.''
But other schools face similar challenges, and do better. At
Brentwood Elementary, for example, students surpassed the school
system's average score on the Florida Writes! writing test this
Nancy Snyder, who oversees both schools as assistant
superintendent for elementaries, puts ''superior leadership'' first
in listing what makes a school succeed.
She said West Jacksonville Principal Sylvia Johnson, in only her
second year, is taking the right steps, and student test scores
already are improving.
''What you do see at West Jacksonville is actually the same thing
you would have seen at Brentwood if you roll the clock back five
years,'' Snyder said. ''It doesn't happen overnight.''
Johnson replaced Kenneth Stewart, who was transferred in 1995 and
is now working as a fifth-grade teacher at Seabreeze Elementary.
Stewart was rated ''below expectation'' in leadership,
decision-making and judgment in his last evaluation as principal. He
had been principal for six years.
Stewart declined to discuss his work at West Jacksonville. He
disputed the evaluation, according to records in his personnel file.
Kay Price, who works in professional development for the school
system, was part of a school improvement team sent into West
Jacksonville in November. She said team members observed school
activities and talked to teachers, parents, students and staff.
''What we kept hearing over and over again were absolute raves
about the current administration and the impact it's had on the
school,'' Price said.
''Sylvia Johnson has helped make tremendous strides. In time, I
think, she's going to get the school where it needs to be.''
Johnson, giving a recent tour at West Jacksonville, doesn't dwell
on why the school has fared so poorly in the past.
Instead, she watches the children's reaction to Delifus' science
experiment with a smile, seeing two keys to helping her students
improve: an infusion of outside support and teaching that holds
Her first job as principal is ''a challenge,'' she said, but she
is optimistic about the school's future.
''You have to truly believe every child can learn and I do,''
said Johnson, a 20-year teaching veteran. ''Maybe in different ways
and at different rates, but our job as educators is to find out how
to teach them.''
It was the school's inclusion on the state troubled schools list
that prompted a flurry of activity, including more tutoring
programs, new technology and teacher training.
Five computers were put in each classroom, along with a software
program in math and reading that has shown preliminary success at
other schools. Nine teachers were trained to use all types of books,
rather than textbooks only, to get kids' attention.
Business and volunteer involvement has increased, and grants are
bringing in more help. A grant written by area university faculty is
paying for five volunteers with AmeriCorps, the federal program
providing college money in exchange for service, to assist teachers
and to act as one-on-one tutors with students. Other grants written
by West Jacksonville teachers paid for an after-school reading
program for students and their parents, and for a field trip to
Kennedy Space Center and materials to help the school's business
partner, IBM Corp., teach kids about rockets and math and science.
Test scores have gone up. Last year, 16 percent of
fourth-graders, the age used in compiling the state troubled schools
list, scored above the national average in reading. That number was
up to 30 percent this year.
''We're already on the right track,'' third-grade teacher Linda
Stalcup said. ''Give us time. We're doing it.''
More needs to be done, Johnson said, and some changes are on the
way. Among them:
Discipline, a problem cited by some teachers, will be addressed
with the implementation of the ''Fighting Fair'' peer mediation
program next year. West Jacksonville Elementary reported 58 fights
last year in its annual school report, one of the highest numbers
reported by elementaries.
A $3 million construction project, to be completed in the fall,
will mean an end to six long-standing portable classrooms and help
alleviate cramped space.
The project will add six classrooms and a media center, remodel
the existing media center into two classrooms and add parking space
and a new bus driveway.
''It might help the morale of the neighborhood just to see money
being spent on the school,'' said Tomford, the kindergarten teacher.
The school is being wired for the Internet as part of the
construction project, beefing up its electronics magnet program.
West Jacksonville also is adding 32 laptop computers for
fourth-graders next year and will allow the laptops to be taken
home, provided parents undergo training in their use.
Parental involvement is being encouraged by using an Americorps
volunteer as a parent liaison. The volunteer will hold workshops
this fall to help train parents in job and parenting skills. Two
computers have been set aside for parental use.
Johnson said she would like to get a high school diploma program
for parents started at the school, to encourage their education and
to make them comfortable in the building.
West Jacksonville PTA President Edna Brown also is thinking of
ways to involve parents. She's been considering incentives, such as
giving away plants, to get parents to attend PTA activities.
Brown said it's not that all parents are busy with work or
school, because many are not. Often, they make excuses.
''People just say, I'll come the next time, and they don't,''
Brown said. ''If parents would get more involved and make sure the
children are doing what they're supposed to do, like homework, the
children would feel better about what they're doing and try
Johnson would like to have the space to set aside a resource room
just for parents, with computers and books just for them. She'd also
put enough money for an art teacher on her wish list, she said.
But she said she's happy with the progress now being made.
''We're excited because we're finally getting things done,'' she
said. ''You have to take time to grow a school. It's like a garden