By Caroline Young | email@example.com
Photos by Gorge Gallardo
St. Johns County superintendent Joseph Joyner said it is near impossible to compare the U.S.’s educational success with the rest of the world.
“We have different tests and assessments than other countries,” he said.
A USA Today article said The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development places the U.S. 18th among the 36 nations examined.
“We’ve been asleep for a good number of years as a country,” a Harvard professor told USA Today. “It’s not that we’re doing horrible. But the other guys are moving faster.”
“A blanket statement cannot be made about our country’s success rate when comparing it to 30 others,” Joyner said.
St. Johns County resident Christy Castelli has a 17-year-old daughter who attends Pedro Menendez high school and thinks that education is not a top priority in the U.S.
“Teachers are underpaid, Castelli said. “There’s no real motivation for students to really do well…The first thing it seems like that gets cut is our educational system.”
Castelli said the country needs to focus on the “basics,” such as building more schools and cutting back on classroom sizes.
“You get what you’re paid for,” she said. “I think if want to raise our rankings, we have to put money into our systems.”
Nancy Little, principal of Osceola Elementary School in St. Johns County, agrees with Joyner in that the comparisons between the U.S. and other countries may be misleading.
“We have opened doors for students, and those doors are not open in other places,” she said. “I don’t think we are comparing apples and apples.”
Little said the U.S. school systems are successfully working on making sure students are truly taught a subject, rather than simply skimming the surface.
“We are trying to make sure that kids understand the concepts, not just a general overview,” Little said. “We are not doing everything right by any means but we are moving in the right direction.”
According to the Department of Education, Florida’s average of graduating students is nearly sixty-five percent, falling below the national average of 75 percent.
“Sometimes we paint with a broad brush,” Joyner said.
He thinks that American education generalizations focus too much on failing schools.
“Sometimes people try to judge the American public education based on problems they see in urban schools that is not representative of American public education.”
Joyner said the state of Florida needs to focus on providing the right resources because it is the 50th state in line for governmental education funds.
Castelli says Florida’s educational system focuses too much on standardized testing, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (F-CATs).
“I think they lost sight of why the kids are going to school and are too focused on getting funds met through F-CATS,” she said. “That is one of the main reasons that Florida is so behind.”
However, The St. Augustine Record reported St. Johns County earned first place on Florida’s educational success scale in the past two years.
Joyner attributes the success to the exceptional teachers in the district.
“It is always about getting the best teachers in the classrooms and having expectations for high-quality teaching.”
Joyner said the school system is able to be selective because so many people want to teach in St. John’s County.
“I think we hire exceptionally well,” Little said. “There is a personal mission to make sure each child learns… and we get the support we need from our district.”
However, there are improvements Little believes need to be made.
Little wants to improve the Response to Intervention (RTI) model, which involves making sure children are being focused on at an earlier age.
“My concern is how to engage parents more in what is going on with education and that is very hard because of economic times,” she said.
Before Pedro Menendez, Castelli’s daughter attended Hartley Elementary and Gamble Rogers Middle School. As she grew up in the St. Johns school system, the communication from her daughter’s school decreased, Castelli said.
“I get an occasional thing in the mail, but not that much,” she said. “They don’t have open houses like they used to… I think it is really important that they still do that so parents can be more involved.”
Castelli says St. Johns has the upper-hand to other Florida counties because of the general wealth of the county’s population.
“It is a more affluent community compared to other counties,” she said. “There are so many rural counties in Florida that do not have resources that we have here.”
Castelli has two other children who were educated in the St. Johns County school system and are now in their late 20′s. Although she is generally happy with the school system, she notices a difference in her younger daughter’s school experience from her older children, such as the schools cutting some extra-curricular classes and athletic programs.
Unless they have a motivational teacher, Castelli said kids have to be more self-driven to succeed these days.
“I think one of the reasons kids lack motivation is because they are cutting back on Bright Futures,” she said. “They don’t have as much to work for or get rewarded for as they did four or five years ago.”
Nonetheless, the county high school dropout rate is 1 percent, while it is 2.3 percent for the state, according to Joyner.
“The graduation rate is over 90 percent in St. Johns County.”
Joyner said one of the goals for the school system this year is to increase the percentage of kids in advanced classes. Each school in the county sets annual goals.
“We have a process of continuing quality improvement,” Joyner said. “Every year we identify areas we want to get better in and we set goals and we hold ourselves accountable to reach those goals.”