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How a Great Florida Principal Turned Around a Failing School

• Mike Thomas

Palmetto Elementary in Orlando began the 2013 school year designated as a failing school. Among fourth graders, only 24 percent passed the state math assessment with 28 percent passing in reading. Those results brought Palmetto an F grade from the state.

Demography, it seemed, was destiny.

Most of its 1,100 students came from low-income families. More than half were English language learners, many of them children of Haitian immigrants. There was transience and excessive absenteeism.

These challenges and long commutes created high teacher turnover.

There was a time when Palmetto simply would have been written off as hopeless. But not now, not with an F grade demanding attention. Not with a new education ethic that says all kids matter.

Orange County Public Schools brought in a new principal last year, Dr. Angela Murphy-Osborne. She looked at Palmetto and saw something most thought unbelievable – the potential for excellence.

Murphy-Osborne came from another Title 1 school in Orange County – Spring Lake Elementary. In her last five years at Spring Lake, the school earned five A’s from the state. It was designated as a “Title 1 Distinguished School’’ in 2010-11, only one of seven schools in the state to earn that honor.

At Palmetto, her first task was filling a third of the teaching slots.

This left Murphy-Osborne with a staff in which 60 percent of her teachers had three years or less experience. Several never had been in a classroom before.

“We’d take those with a good attitude because we could train them,’’ she says.

Next up was changing the culture of the school.

“It was hard to imagine Palmetto getting an A,’’ said assistant principal Shaun Kelley. “It wasn’t just getting the kids to believe, but the staff.’’

Says Murphy-Osborne, “For one, we all worked as a team and built morale and let everybody know we are in this together. We put new strategies in place across the school. We had coaches in reading, writing, and math. We had common planning three times a week. We talked about standards and what is going to be taught and whether we have the resources.’’

There was a focus on maximizing learning time, which meant ensuring the kids were in the classrooms.

The school brought in an attendance clerk who was on the phone to parents whenever a student didn’t show up in the morning. The absentee rate dropped instantly.

“Every instructional minute counts,’’ says assistant principal Alisa Hambrick.

The school set up an optional after-school tutoring program. Students that made it to 80 percent of the sessions would earn a field trip to Legoland. The trip was paid for with donations and with help from sponsors, including Cigna, which had adopted Palmetto.

“We had so many people help us it was incredible,’’ says Murphy-Osborne. “They want us to succeed.’’

The St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in nearby Gotha adopted the school, providing everything from holiday gifts for kids to diapers and other supplies for parents. Community volunteers came in to clean up the school grounds. The staff undertook interior painting projects. A girl from a more affluent school turned her birthday party into a fundraiser for the Legoland trip.

Incentives were emphasized.

If kids made the honor roll, they got ice cream. Pizza parties were another reward.

“Everything was tied to an incentive,’’ says Murphy-Osborne. “It wasn’t a hand out for the students but a hand up. You had to earn it to get anything. We told them we believed in them and that they could do it.’’

Math and reading plans were developed for each student. Weaknesses were identified on benchmark assessments and addressed.

“Data that doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done,’’ says Murphy-Osborne. “Data was the push on everything.’’

There were red-yellow-green charts in hallways showing the progress each class was making on its benchmark tests and other assessments. As the year progressed, more and more turned green.

The first big payoff came when the state writing scores came back. Palmetto finished among the top elementary schools in Orange County. There were high-fives, celebrations, and even tears.

The other scores were released earlier this summer.

  • The number of fourth graders passing the state math test jumped from 24 percent to 65 percent.
  • The percent of fourth graders passing the reading test went from 28 percent to 54 percent.
  • The percent of fifth graders passing the science exam doubled, going from 22 percent to 45 percent.

Such learning gains are pretty much unprecedented.

Palmetto Elementary accomplished the seemingly impossible. It earned an A, the only elementary or middle school in Florida to make the jump from F to A in 2013- 14.

Palmetto went from a failure to helping Orange County Public Schools become one of two finalists this year for the coveted Broad Prize, which recognizes excellence in urban education.

I’ve been involved in education for almost 15 years, most of that as a journalist. And I’ve noticed commonalities among successful principals in Title 1 schools.

They have a passion for disadvantaged students. They don’t want to go to the suburbs. They can create the desire to learn in kids who grew up without books, or books not written in English. They understand the power of earned rewards to stoke that desire.

Kids do not want to fail. They tap into that pride.

They recognize the enormous challenge but don’t allow that to become an excuse.

They are high-energy and competitive. They think out of the box. One of the incentives for success at Palmetto is being able to toss a pie in a teacher’s face.

They create expectations for success and convince skeptical students, teachers, and communities.

They make everyone around them, from assistant principals to teachers to aides, better.

It’s all about the team.

They possess a very unique skill set and that’s why there are not enough of them. If there were, one school superintendent once told me, there would be no failing schools.

“I feel very blessed,’’ says Murphy-Osborne. “I love what I do.’’

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at