By Rick Outzen
When he spoke to the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club last month, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran decried how leaders have constantly experimented with public education and hurt whole generations of students.
“In education, we experiment with our kids all the time,” said Corcoran. “And so I always say facts and evidence matter. Can we make education 100% facts- and evidence-based?”
The evidence appears to show Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas’s experiment to create a top-notch middle school by enrolling it in an elite academic program has failed.
Middle School IB
In early 2010, Thomas and his leadership team came up with an idea to attract students from its highest-performing elementary schools, such as Cordova Park, N.B. Cook and A.K. Suter, to Workman Middle School.
The district would enroll the middle school near Booker T. Washington High School in the International Baccalaureate World School Program, making the school one of only 39 such programs in the state at the time. After all, the IB program at Pensacola High School had been a substantial academic success. The designation could be the magnet to pry the district’s brightest incoming sixth-graders away from the area’s parochial and private middle schools.
Unlike PHS IB that is selective in its students and operates as a “school within the school,” every Workman Middle School student would be in the IB program and take physical education, a fine arts class and a technology class.
“We’re not just raising the rigor of advanced students; we’re raising the rigor of all of our students,” Workman Principal Juanita Edwards told the News Journal when the program was announced, “even if they’re in (remediation) classes. We tend not to challenge those students as much as we should.”
Workman seemed to be a good candidate for the program that was projected to cost $322,623 over its first four years. The school had 875 students but could accept 1,075 students. Workman had earned good grades on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test from 2004 to 2009—B, B, A, C, B, B.
After a year as an IB candidate school, Workman was accepted into the academic program. In August 2012, over 200 parents, teachers and district administrators gathered to celebrate and listen to Superintendent Thomas, Principal Edwards and District 4 school board member Patty Hightower laud the program. Thomas listed the Workman IB program as one of his accomplishments when he ran for re-election in the fall.
A year later, the balloons had burst, the cake had gone stale, Thomas had won a second term and Workman’s school grade dropped from a C to a D. Reading proficiency was only at 49%. Writing proficiency was at 46%. Math proficiency came in at 41%. Edwards was out as principal, but the IB curriculum stayed.
No Bounce Back
Workman has yet to bounce back. This past school year, the middle school dropped again to a D after being a C for several years. Of the state’s non-charter middle schools, Workman was ranked the ninth-worst. Only 38% of its students read and write on their grade level or higher. Only 26% were on grade level or higher in math, and according to the state assessments, only 4% of the eighth-graders were on grade level or higher in math.
According to the International Baccalaureate World School Program website, Florida currently has 44 other public and charter schools that are in the IB Middle School Program. Of those schools, 21 earned A grades, eight B grades, 14 C grades and one D grade. Workman Middle had the lowest score of the 45 IB middle schools in the state.
In February 2012, when Workman Middle was preparing for its site visit from International Baccalaureate World, IB director Stephen Elting touted to the daily newspaper how enrollment was up at the school, from 850 students in 2010 to 946 in 2012. He said IB’s positive behavior program had cut discipline problems in half.
Six years later, the enrollment has only increased by eight students, and that is after the district closed Woodham Middle in 2018. However, violence on the campus has soared.
With numerous lockdowns reported in the first semester of last school year, Inweekly requested the call-outs made to Workman. The Pensacola Police Department’s records showed officers had been called out to the school 52 times—an average of 2.74 times a week or roughly every other school day.
According to the latest records of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Workman Middle had more arrests, 25, than any other middle school in Escambia County and the second most of any middle school in Florida during 2017-18 school year. Only Bay County’s Jinks Middle School had more with 27 arrests.
Over the summer, Inweekly reached out to teachers who are currently at Workman or recently taught at the middle school. Because of the district administration’s reputation for retaliation against employees that speak out, the teachers who responded asked to be anonymous.
Their comments had a common theme. The IB curriculum is very demanding on the teachers and doesn’t fit the needs of the majority of the students.
“The IB program from middle school is not an accelerated enrichment program. It’s based on soft skills, such as developing the values and character in a student, to be a learner later,” one teacher shared. “The curriculum is not in line with the needs of our students, and it dictates mandatory classes that really are just fluff in terms of where our students are. You don’t need a second language when you can barely do correct grammar in English.”
Several teachers mentioned that many students weren’t ready to transition to middle school. Negative behavior wasn’t addressed at the beginning of the school year. The school rewarded positive behavior, but “very, very negative and disruptive in classrooms was ignored, and the students were given too many chances.”
After a day filled with a high number of fights, the principal put the entire school on lockdown, keeping the students in their first period classrooms for the day. Parents were told the students were being drilled in math for the upcoming state assessments. Very little math was taught that day.
Teachers also complained about classes sizes—the high class numbers with low-level students. Workman’s internet was often down, limiting the use of Chromebooks in the classrooms.
According to the teachers, the district knows about the problems with the IB program at Workman. Parents have made phone calls to Patty Hightower and district officials, and “the data’s obvious, year to year, that Workman’s plummeting and we’re losing students.”
Workman and its IB Program have failed to attract students from A.K. Suter, Cordova Park and N.B. Cook. The teachers believe the IB curriculum has hurt the school’s lower-level students. They recommend that Workman Middle School become a traditional middle school with honors, general and remedial classes so teachers can focus on the needs of each student, not the IB program.
The facts appear to support the teachers’ recommendation. It may be time to pull the plug on this educational experiment.