The Franklin County School Board did some vocal soul-searching last week, as members discussed candidly the comparative success and shortcomings of the district’s two public schools.

While last Friday’s release of standardized test scores from each of the state’s 67 counties showed healthy gains in reading, math and writing throughout the Franklin County elementary and middle schools, the school board at its June 6 meeting had only the third grade scores to consider, which were released last month.

“I hate this time of the year because FCAT scores come out,” said Board Member George Thompson, in opening the discussion. “I had a friend tell me FCAT scores are embarrassing in this county. I want to know what are we doing wrong?

“Everyone around us is doing a great job,” he said, referring both to the Apalachicola Bay Charter School as well as schools in neighboring counties.

Thompson said he has heard people in Wakulla and other neighboring counties complain teachers there spend too much time preparing students for the test, but he suggested perhaps teachers here might learn from that approach.

“That’s what the state wants you to do,” he said to Superintendent Nina Marks. “If I was in your shoes, all of the teachers would find out what they’re doing.

“When you’re next to the last in the state of Florida, we’re doing a terrible job and that is what’s embarrassing. I’m out on the street every day, all day long and people hit me up on it,” said Thompson, a letter carrier for the postal service. “What can I tell them we’re working on?”

Marks said she met with elementary teachers the previous week, and found there to be a productive exchange of ideas.

“They’re coming up with solutions themselves,” she said. “They want to fix it. They just, I guess, need a little bit more tightening up and they’re starting all of that.”

Thompson recalled his early days as a volleyball coach at Carrabelle High School, and how he turned to David Walker, the coach of arch-rival Apalachicola High School, for help with his new assignment.

“You got to have pride,” he said. “Why not pick up a phone and call another teacher, and say ‘Tell me what you’re doing.’ Swallow your pride and let’s make this school what everybody wants it to be.”

The discussion then took a turn towards the issue of how best to use school teaching and counseling resources, as Board Member Pam Shiver suggested the district consider expanding the availability of the school’s guidance counselor.

“That’s not enough time for them (parents) to meet with the guidance counselor and make plans for their child’s future,” she said. “Is there any way we can make that guidance counselor a little more available to parents?”

Principal Eric Bidwell noted that a 12-month contract would add additional costs and time to the job, and that coverage over the Easter and Christmas holiday vacations may not be needed.

In his remarks, Board Member David Hinton used the analogy of how in the aftermath of their 1997 World Series victory, the Florida Marlins traded away their top players, and then took six more years before making it back in the winner’s circle.

He suggested the ABC School has had better success with testing because it has been able to attract the district’s most academically committed students.

“Some people say the school is better. I don’t think the school is better,” he said. “I say it’s the players.”

Hinton went on to propose the district consider a plan in which the lower performers on the FCAT test, those who are one and two years behind grade level, are sent to the charter school to sharpen their skills. “Why don’t we require them to go to the charter school?” he asked. “That’s something the attorney needs to look into. I would like to see some way we could require lower performing students to enroll in the charter school.”

Thompson replied with a suggestion of his own. “Why don’t we just petition the state and make our school a charter school?” he said. “We haven’t lost our good players.”

Hinton then introduced a commonly heard observation, that the charter school attracts only the more affluent students and fewer minorities, but went on to clarify that the composition of the ABC School is different than when it started a decade ago.

“They (the two school’s student bodies) are not far off anymore,” he said. “They’re very close.”

Shiver said she believed “there are a lot of misconceptions and rumors” surrounding the charter school. “I had someone tell me that they knew for a fact that two students who were enrolled in the charter school were asked for their FCAT scores,” she said.

But, when Shiver inquired of the child’s parents, she learned a different story. “The parent said ‘No, that is not true. As a matter of fact my son is a very low performer,” Shiver said.

Hinton then expanded on his views. “I do know that students who have parents who are highly concerned are the best students,” he said. “Those type of parents insist their children go to the charter school. That tells me the potential top performers are going to the charter school. They all have the backing of parents and that’s very important.

“I just know that the cream of the crop went to the charter school when it first started,” he said. “ Whether it’s true anymore I don’t know.”

Marks offered her views on the best approach towards improving student test scores. “You cannot put our kids in a box and say they had bad teachers,” she said. “There are a lot of things that have to be studied; there could have been a number of different reasons.

“Some of them were just right there teetering on the fence,” Marks said. “We can’t throw them backwards; we have to push them up. They (the teachers) see they have to come up with solutions and they’re working on it.”

Hinton, a former Carrabelle High School teacher, reiterated his support for faculty. “The school is basically the teachers, and I think they’re just as good as anybody else,” he said.

School Board Chairman Jimmy Gander said he did not concur with Hinton’s characterization about parents. “I take offense at that. I believe that parents who send their children to the Franklin County School are just as interested,” he said. “The charter school is a part of Franklin County. We’re all one; it’s not us and them.

“The biggest problem we’ve had in the past year in our school system has been morale,” he said. “They (staff) don’t feel like they’re part of the decision-making process. They feel like they’re given the decision.

“It starts with that and the working environment and it grows from that being positive to this being positive,” Gander said.

Cathy Wood, representative of the local teachers union, saluted the “camaraderie of teachers at ABC. If we could work together like teachers at ABC.”

She went on to say “the best and the brightest were lured away from us in the beginning (to the ABC School). In the beginning it did create some animosity.

She said she saw teachers at the Franklin County School “working diligently. The first thing they say is ‘we need more time.’”

Wood said the school has suffered from a loss of paraprofessionals, and called for “an additional adult in a typical classroom, not a special needs classroom. When you have a second adult, you can delegate and that very often makes a difference in those environments as well.”

The discussion came to a close with the appearance before the board of Jim Bachrach, a member of the ABC School board.. He stressed that the charter school considers itself an essential part of the entire district and is willing and interested in being supportive of it.