As Duval tries to turn around some of its struggling schools, one of its schools has made quick work of it.

 

Dinsmore Elementary went from being one of the state’s Lowest 300 schools list a few years ago to making its Schools of Excellence list this year, one of just five Florida schools to recently jump from an F or D grade to an A in three years and then to maintain an A for a second year in a row.

The factors at play in this turnaround are inside and outside the school, educators and parents say, and they occurred as the surrounding Dinsmore area has become more racially and economically diverse.

“This school has traditionally been a real neighborhood school. It still is,” said Principal Wanda Reese. “The kids who came to school here years ago, their kids are coming to school here. It’s been a generational school.”

Inside the school, the changes include new support for teachers, such as reading and math coaches, and an interventionist for struggling readers trying to catch up. Also Reese, who shifted two years ago from a larger school, made some organizational changes that helped the school, a science magnet, focus more closely on state academic standards.

The school last year outscored the district averages for elementary schools by 17 percentage points in math and by 21 percentage points in science. Its reading scores, however, were 5 percentage points below the district elementary average.

The school continues to benefit from a district incentive program designed to help struggling schools hire and retain high-quality teachers, luring several to Dinsmore’s already steady stable of educators.

Outside the school, a small, close-knit community embraces the school and its students.

The Dinsmore area in northwest Jacksonville over the years welcomed several new subdivisions, which brought in hundreds of new families and changed the student body to 54 percent minority and 72 percent low income.

“We have more kids living in poverty, who are reading less material and so their vocabularies are not as developed,” Reese said.

In 2016 the school became a Title 1 school, which means it gets extra federal money and students receive free or reduced price meals.

Reese said the school and community provide “wrap-around services” beyond education to help students and families. Reese also helped open of a food pantry at the school.

Outside the school, in the Dinsmore neighborhood, nearly everybody knows everybody as multiple generations send kids to the elementary school and hold baseball and softball games. Two churches on either side of the school and the large community baseball park behind the school are magnets, school officials say, regularly drawing in parents and community members.

“Everybody just starts crossing paths,” said Roger Emery, a Dinsmore parent and high school teacher who attended Dinsmore as a child.

“When we have the fall festivals, they’re almost like miniature family reunions,” he said. “We hold them at the ball park. Everybody gets together.”

Penny Kayser, who attended the school as a child and now has sons in third and fifth grades there, said former longtime principal Christina Gribben had a hand in Dinsmore’s improvement, which began occurring in her final years at the school. Gribben now is a district specialist in Duval’s turnaround school office.

“She [Gribben] could tell me where my kids were and everything about them,” Kayser said. “She got to know them more on a personal level. She made the environment of the school very fun, interactive and engaging.”

But that may have been a downfall for a school that scored C’s and a D, Kayser said.

“The atmosphere was great but I think she may have overlooked some things. I think she let some things slip through the cracks,” Kayser said.

Gribben said in a written statement she is extremely proud of the work at Dinsmore and that educators focused on ways the school could work as a team, including using student performance data to make decisions, and rewarding students for growth on iReady and Achieve 3000 computer lessons.

Dinsmore’s D would have been an F in 2014, but that year the state decided to prevent any school’s grade from falling by more than on letter grade, as a temporary “hold harmless” measure.

Emory said the D grade didn’t shake his community. That was the year before students would begin taking the more difficult Florida Standards Assessments, which replaced the old FCAT tests.

“We knew there was a couple of areas we had to fix: the reading program and we had just become a science magnet. We knew we had some things we had to figure out,” he said.

Kayser said that since Reese became principal she is not as close to the kids or the families as Gribben was, “but she cut out the nonsense. She’s by the books.”

Also some well-liked, long-time teachers left when Reese came aboard, but many hard-working teachers stayed, Kayser said.

“It’s a fun little school,” Kayser said. “Honestly, it’s the teachers. It’s really the teachers who made the A.”

Reese said the teachers and others on staff have become more familiar with state standards and the district’s new curricula. They emphasize student testing data to plan lessons and plot out students’ group work. They also keep students apprised of where they stand academically, she said.

“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet at any school,” Reese said. “It’s about a focus on learning. It’s about the accountability piece, holding children accountable. The number one thing is that children know their data.”

Even in kindergarten, students track of their data in notebooks or binders, noting the sounds and letters they learn and the number of computerized iReady lessons they complete, said Mary Mattscheck, the school reading coach.

When the school was among the state’s Lowest 300, it had to dedicate an extra hour a day to reading, involving all educators.

Math Coach Lauren Collins said she couldn’t fit in math tutoring, so sometimes the students who needed extra math help worked on word problems with her during the reading hour.

Henry Jefferson, a fifth-grader, said he has “data chats” with his teachers and keeps track of his progress.

“What we learn in math, we write down in a table of content,” he said. “Today we learned about fractions as division. We learned how 2 divided by 3 can also be two-thirds.”

James Harrelson, a fifth-grader, likes that the teachers don’t leave struggling students stranded.

“I like the school because it has good teachers,” he said. “They help us to learn new things every day. If there’s something we struggle with, they’ll go over it day after day until we get it right.”

Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083