At a glance, Oakcrest Elementary School in Ocala is just like any other school. The students shuffle into the front office throughout the morning to be checked in and sent on their way. Some are anxious, others defiant. Then there are those who calmly, purposefully check in as if they’re headed to a lucrative day job. Staffers are cheerful and seem to know each child’s unique circumstances.
Oakcrest’s situation, however, is not as cheery as first impressions might suggest.
Oakcrest is one of Florida’s “turnaround” schools. These schools are under strict state supervision due to consistently low performances on the Florida Standards Assessments. Oakcrest has received five consecutive D grades on the state’s annual assessments. Without a C on this spring’s exams, the school faces a decision among three options: turn Oakcrest into a charter school, hire a third-party firm to implement the curriculum or shut the school down entirely. Schools will get results in June.
Many factors influence a school’s performance, including the impact of effective teachers, who are always in demand.
Elizabeth Peebles, a 28-year-old fourth-grade social studies teacher, has managed to find a winning formula in Ocala. As Oakcrest’s teacher of the year, her philosophy is simple: Give students power over their learning by ensuring that they are the ones doing the work. She said it is also important that a teacher is aware of their students’ lives at home.
“In a neighborhood like this, where the kids need you, they need support and a strong foundation to help them learn at school,” Peebles said.
According to Florida Department of Education statistics, 100 percent of Oakcrest students are considered economically disadvantaged.
Data also show that almost 14 percent of Marion County adults are illiterate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This makes it difficult for some parents to help with homework and continue educating their children outside of the classroom.
“It’s not that these parents don’t want their kids to do well. Let me be very clear about that,” said Oakcrest Principal Diane Leinenbach. “They are just so worried about the basic life necessities.”
Marion County School Board member Angie Boynton believes that Oakcrest is doing everything it needs to ensure that it meets standards. She said that teachers are working harder than ever, and parents are determined to keep the school from even stricter state scrutiny. Marion County school officials have held meetings to get feedback from Oakcrest parents and to discuss their options in case the school’s grades persist.
“Parents know what’s happened at Evergreen,” Boynton said. “They’re working with their children themselves to make sure that this is a good school.”
Evergreen Elementary, another Ocala turnaround school, decided to hire an outside operator to implement its curriculum after receiving D and F grades for five consecutive years.
Mark Avery, president of the Marion Education Association, the local teachers union, acknowledged that some Marion County schools are struggling to meet state standards. Avery believes many other external factors determine how a school performs. He noted that lengthy bus routes for students and the continued shuffling of teachers in and out of schools can make operations more difficult.
“Experienced, successful teachers remain the key factor,” Avery said.
It is crucial that Marion County find teachers that do not want to work elsewhere, using the district as a stepping stone to other career opportunities, according to Avery. Teachers like Peebles are dedicated to making under-performing schools reach their goals.
Peebles is a University of Florida graduate who has been at Oakcrest for four years. Coming from a family of teachers, she naturally felt that her calling would involve being in the classroom as well. The trait she has found to be most useful is patience. For her, the most rewarding part of the work is seeing growth in individual students.
“I’m just happy when I see a light bulb go off,” Peebles said.
Some educators may view tough love as an effective tool, but Peebles believes that no instruction can work if students don’t feel cared for.
“Every day I get a hug from them,” Peebles said. “They will not leave school unless they have gotten a hug from me.”
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