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Strategic moves keep Starke on the upswing

Koala all the way — Innovative Principal Dwayne Copeland holds the Starke Elementary School mascot, a koala bear. Copeland and his teachers made changes in how fourth-graders are taught, and significant test-score gains were the result. Copeland has overseen the school’s rise from an F to a C grade.

Koala all the way — Innovative Principal Dwayne Copeland holds the Starke Elementary School mascot, a koala bear. Copeland and his teachers made changes in how fourth-graders are taught, and significant test-score gains were the result. Copeland has overseen the school’s rise from an F to a C grade.

BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN

The Florida Department of Education will have to look elsewhere if it wants to convert persistently low-performing schools to charter schools. Edith I. Starke Elementary will not be on the list. 

Starke, in the Spring Hill community of DeLand, started the 2017-18 school year with a high C school grade — up from an F in 2014-15 — and Principal Dwayne Copeland is working to keep the grade high.

The second-in-a-row C keeps Starke out of the reach of a new Florida law — House Bill 7069 — that requires low-performing public schools to implement one-year improvement plans, and threatens such schools with replacement by charter schools, or outright closure, if they can’t turn things around. 

The law’s provisions apply to schools that earn grades lower than C for two years in a row.

Copeland said Starke was able to rise above this danger zone because of community and school-district support for changes that were made.

He noted it took only one year for Starke to raise its grade from an F to a C.

“The community was supportive of our innovative strategies to work with children and faculty,” he said.

Better yet, Starke’s latest C was only two points from a B, the principal noted.

The school’s challenges are significant. Starke serves 434 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and 99 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning their families are living in poverty.

That’s the highest percentage of poor students of any school in Volusia County, Copeland said.

His strategies for Starke’s turnaround were multifaceted, but improving teacher and student morale, as well as making structural changes for fourth grade, were keys to Starke’s success.

Providing both teachers and students with effective and timely feedback proved important, as well, Copeland said, as did fostering a culture of success at the school. With the community’s help, Copeland was able to send students on field trips, which contributed to higher morale.

In its quest for improvement, Starke also discovered something Copeland calls “departmentalizing.” It produced significant improvements among fourth-graders, who gained 40 points in math and 18 points in language arts. There were other gains, but none as significant as the fourth grade’s.

Reviewing student test scores each grading period, the principal noted trends of highs and lows that could be associated with particular teachers. He learned that the teachers themselves also recognized these trends.

At a staff meeting, Copeland and the teachers agreed to restructure the fourth grade. Instead of all the fourth-grade teachers teaching all the subjects, each teacher would teach his or her strongest subject.

This allowed each teacher to focus on planning lessons and instructions only for his or her strongest discipline, Copeland explained.

The students would rotate through 90 minutes of math, 90 minutes of science and writing, and 90 minutes of English language arts each day.

The strategy is unconventional for elementary school, but the test results showed the benefits. Starke is now leading or very competitive with other schools in district assessment scores, Copeland said.

To be sure they were headed in the right direction, the principal and another administrator tried it themselves. Instead of hiring a substitute for a teacher on leave, Copeland and the other administrator took over a classroom, teaching the lessons for math and English language arts.

“Our district is extremely proud of the progress Starke Elementary is making,” said Rachel Hazel, executive director of K-12 curriculum for the school district. She added, “This model has proven successful and is being replicated.” 

- Schandra Rodriguez-Conti, info@beacononlinenews.com


Asking the right questions

As Starke Elementary School worked to turn around its low grade, Principal Dwayne Copeland said he asked the instructional staff to focus on the answers to four questions:

What do we expect students to learn?

How will we know when they have learned it?

How will we respond when they demonstrate that they haven’t learned it?

What will we do if they demonstrate that they already know it?


Starke Elementary’s report card

2013 D

2014 F

2015 F*

2016 C

2017 C

— Source: Volusia County Schools. *The 2015 grade is considered an informational baseline grade only, as there was a new test that year and no earlier data for comparison.


Our district is extremely proud of the progress Starke Elementary is making. Throughout last school year, our curriculum department supported Mr. Copeland’s vision by providing professional learning for the teachers, being available to assist with progress monitoring, and continuing to provide standards-aligned materials.

“Additionally, a liaison served as a point of contact to assist Mr. Copeland in accessing all available resources. This model has proven successful and is being replicated. 

“The progress they have made is the result of a lot of hard work and dedication from the entire Starke family. We are thankful that we are able to support such a dedicated faculty, staff and community.”

— Rachel Hazel, executive director of K-12 curriculum for Volusia County Schools

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