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Hands are in the air at Dayspring Academy

• Mike Thomas

Secrets of Great Schools


There are many metrics for judging school success—test scores, advanced coursework and so on.

My metric is hands in the air. When you walk into a classroom and see hands in the air, quivering and shaking, silently pleading with the teacher to “call on me,” it translates into enthusiastic learners.

It’s hard to overestimate the value of buy-in from the kids in the classroom.

At Dayspring Academy, in classroom after classroom, the hands are figuratively flapping in the breeze.

In classroom after classroom pullout quoteIn Barbara Naporano’s second-grade class, the kids sometimes grow impatient, forget formalities and simply blurt out answers. And these are to math questions, no less.

In Kirstie Evan’s fourth-grade class, the pace is slower as there are no quick answers. When called on, students have to find the evidence for the teacher’s query in the text of a book. Rather than lecture, Ms. Evans asks questions and lets the students find the answers.

It’s not surprising that Dayspring is the highest performing public school in Pasco County, Fla. It also is a charter school, which means its doors are open to all students in the district.  Demand is such that there is an annual admission lottery and a long waiting list.

Mrs. Beck Differentiated learning group
Students in a differentiated instruction group at Dayspring Academy.

The school’s formula for success includes high standards, rich curriculum, character development, a robust arts program and a very selective approach to hiring teachers. And just as students are taught to base their answers on evidence, so too does the school base its decisions on evidence.

“Data is a huge, huge driver of what we do,” says Administrator Suzanne Legg.

School leaders set goals for classrooms and monitor formative test results to determine progress. Teachers meet weekly, divided into three groups—kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, fourth and fifth grade. Teachers in the lower grades get input on what will be expected of their students at the next level. The teachers in the higher grades get input on the students who will be in their classrooms the next year.

In addition, administrators do frequent classroom visits.

who we put in the classroom_pullout quote“The staff is all-in,” says Principal Brenda Garcia. “They are open to being coached and growing professionally. Who we put in the classroom—that’s everything.”

The school uses the Core Knowledge Sequence, which outlines specific content every child should learn at his or her grade level in core subjects. This builds a foundation of knowledge and skills, and ensures a smooth transition from one grade to the next.

All children know the goals set for them, and where they stand in meeting them.

Those who are struggling are not pulled out for remediation classes. Instead, their needs are met in their classroom during breakout sessions in which students are divided into ability groups for differentiated instruction. To facilitate this approach, each teacher has an aide.

“That’s expensive, but it’s very valuable,” says Legg.

Dayspring doesn’t have the fiscal resources of a traditional public school. It relies on fundraisers and donations. Enough has been raised to replace portable classrooms, used for grades 3-5, with a new building.

“We’re very frugal with our budget,” says Legg. “We live hand to mouth. It’s a constant balancing act.”

For example, the school did not have the funding for an extended day for students needing extra help. And so, teachers agreed to give up an hour of planning time to give them the added instruction three days a week.

Daysprings image 1After completing fifth grade, many students move on to Dayspring’s middle school campus located close by. The high expectations continue there, along with heavy use of digital technology.

Pencils and paper are giving way to iPads. Often, homework is done online and students get instant feedback. Teachers monitor progress.

“It makes grading easier,” says Joanna Montgomery, who teaches pre-algebra and algebra. “I don’t have to bring stacks of paper home. There is quick turnaround.”

Freed from the more mundane and labor intensive tasks of their profession, teachers have more time to focus on planning and teaching.

Walking through classrooms, it’s amazing to watch how adeptly the students work with the technology. Sixth graders are reading “The Odyssey,” math students are working problems and demonstrating their work, art students are painting and sketching—all on their iPads.

Responding to demand, Dayspring has started a high school. Currently it offers ninth and tenth grades, and will add a grade level each of the next two years.

The school has worked out a dual-enrollment program with Pasco-Hernando State College. The goal is to graduate high school seniors who already have obtained their A.A. or A.S. degrees.

“It’s the whole atmosphere of high expectations,” says Sara Capwell, director of the secondary school program. “The parents are committed to go the extra mile. The entire staff has input and cares. Students very much respond to all this.”


Read other posts in the Secrets of Great Schools series:


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