Parents whose children attend Pinellas County’s fundamental schools like to think they’re getting the best education available, but one researcher is putting that theory to the test.
Matthew Chingos, a researcher with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is wrapping up a yearlong study on whether Pinellas County’s fundamental schools are as effective as they claim to be.
“The hypothesis that these families have, who put their kids on massive waiting lists to get in, is that these schools are better then the alternative,” Chingos said. “But of course you never know if that’s really true until you actually look at the data.”
Fundamental schools mirrors charter schools in their focus on strict discipline but are free and operate through the school district. Using three to four years worth of school district data on student math and reading grades, Chingos is in the process of comparing the academic growth of students who applied to fundamental schools but did not get accepted to those in traditional schools.
Because both groups exhibited many of the same traits when applying to the schools, the results will show whether a student’s personal discipline or school is more responsible for good grades, Chingos said.
“The only way to get in to a fundamental school is through a lottery system,” he said. “What we’re hoping to do is compare students that won the lottery to be in a fundamental school to those that lost the lottery, so the only way they’re different is the random number that was drawn for them, and it’s not that one group was more motivated then the other.”
No results are available yet, but Chingos said he hopes they will be ready in three to six months and provide feedback on how the district could amend or expand the current model.
The schools’ have proven their worth in test results, said Dee Burns, the director of student assignment for Pinellas County Schools.
“We’re really unique in that we’re the only district in the nation with public, fundamental schools the way we have them,” Burns said. “They are always the top-performing schools in the district, and they always have the highest number of applicants and just really focus on a back-to-basics approach.”
The biggest factor to the schools’ success and the biggest difference from traditional public schools - is the high expectations for parent involvement, she said. Those who don’t volunteer, sign their children’s homework each night or attend school meetings run the risk of having their children expelled.
But parents are still clamoring to enroll their students in the programs, said Clearwater Fundamental Middle School Principal David Rosenberger. Enrollment in private schools has dropped 28 percent since the 2002-2003 academic year, and of the 104,000 students in the Pinellas County school system more than 7,000 attend the district’s 12 fundamental schools. Clearwater Fundamental, which is in the Top 10 percent of schools in Florida, had to wade through 600 applications for 280 openings for next fall.
“Our kids are always outperforming other schools … and the parents are the key ingredient for student success,” Rosenberger said. “It’s for families looking for a program entrenched in communications and rigor. Study after study has shown that if education is important to the parents the kids will be successful.”