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For the past year The Hechinger Report and StateImpact Florida have taken you into two schools to hear what preparations for Florida’s new Common Core-based standards sound like. The standards outline what students should know in math and language arts. When classes start this fall every grade in every Florida public school will use them. But are schools ready?

The Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader and StateImpact Florida’s John O’Connor tell us what they’ve learned.

The teachers at Tampa’s Monroe Middle School are confident that the transition to Florida’s new standards will go well. They’ve got a principal and superintendent enthusiastic about Common Core, and say that they’re on track for the changes.

“A lot of times in education they put things under different names when it’s something you’ve been doing all along, so I think we’re probably doing mostly what we need to do already,” said gym teacher Shane Knipple. Civics teacher Tony Corbett agreed. “It just gives us 10 things to focus on that we’ve already been focusing on.

Although the teachers at Monroe Middle School are optimistic, many teachers and school leaders think the switch to Common Core is the biggest change in education now, and it’s taken a lot of work. West DeFuniak Elementary School in the Panhandle has spent three years preparing for Common Core. But there were still some last-minute adjustments during the final weeks of the transition this spring.

Florida Common Core
Darlene Paul, principal of West Defuniak Elementary, speaks to a student during a visit to a third-grade classroom. Paul says she has been impressed with the academic success of young students who have been taught only using the new Florida Standards. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Third-grade teacher Casi Adkinson had to wait until May, after the state exam, to teach a few key math concepts, like area, that weren’t mandated under this year’s standards or on the exam for third-grade.

“Area is something that is not covered under the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards but it is covered under the Florida Standards that we are going to next year,” Adkinson said. “So we needed to make sure that they knew area before we sent them on to the next grade.”

School districts and the state have spent millions training teachers for the new standards. Many teachers are taking more summer seminars right now. But teachers like Adkinson admit they probably still have a lot to learn.

“I think that next year is going to be more challenging because it is full implementation of Common Core,” Adkinson said. “As much as I think I know right now, I’m going to probably be eating a lot of humble pie next year: ‘Oh, I thought I knew how deep I needed to go, but really I don’t.’”

Schools aren’t just dealing with new standards. There’s a new curriculum, new teaching techniques, and new tougher online tests. Schools and teachers are going to be judged on the results of those tests, which nobody’s seen yet.

But West DeFuniak Elementary principal Darlene Paul says the work will be worth it. She’s already seen improvement in students taught using only Common Core standards.

“Three years ago I would have said no way possible,” Paul said. “The majority of our kindergarteners [who] will be leaving kindergarten, they are writing a paragraph. They’re starting their sentences with a capital letter and ending with punctuation. They’re reading. It’s absolutely amazing what they’re able to do.”

Still, schools also need to make Common Core work for older students. “That’s the challenge for us. If this is happening in kindergarten, we have to keep that alive, we have to keep the rigor in each grade level afterward,” Paul said.

It’s a challenge schools across Florida and the country will be taking on this fall. This year, the percentage of third-graders who passed the state reading exam at West Defuniak Elementary dropped slightly from last year, but the percentage passing the math exam increased. Monroe Middle School improved from a ‘C’ on an A-F rating scale, to a ‘B’ this year. While reading scores were flat, math and writing scores went up.

This story is the last of a five-part series looking at how schools are preparing for the Common Core State Standards in Florida. It was produced in partnership with StateImpact Florida, a reporting project of NPR member stations.

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