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How one Pasco County charter school made a big improvement in its school grade

A sign in front of the Athenian Academy school.
Jack Prator
WUSF Public Media
Principal Evan Markowitz said his teachers and staff are the key to Athenian Academy's success. "At the end of the day, it's a team effort and they do far more than me," he said.

Before becoming principal, Evan Markowitz was a music teacher at Athenian Academy. He said creating upward mobility for his teachers is important to him.

Editor's note: When the Florida Department of Education released its grades for schools this month, some in the greater Tampa Bay region showed significant improvement. WUSF is taking a look at how some of these schools were able to turn their grades around.

In 2016, the Athenian Academy of Technology and the Arts in New Port Richey was just scraping by with a ‘D’ grade. Evan Markowitz, principal of the Pasco charter school, and his staff worked to turn the school around and now it's received an A for two consecutive years.

“We look at some of our science, for example, in eighth-grade achievement, we actually had the highest scores in the county for Pasco,” he said. “And so I think that this goal is to continue to build all of our other scores up -— civics, we were actually the only school in Pasco that has had a 100% pass rate. Our goal is to become one of the top performing schools in the state, not just the county.”

Markowitz said that means lifting up students who are struggling.

The Athenian Academy is the only middle and elementary Title I school in Pasco County, meaning that 75% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

The school’s Hispanic population has climbed in recent years and students of color now make up 40% of the student population.

"We saw a lot of the achievement gap closed this year. We're seeing a lot of our minority populations close in,” Markowitz said. “So I think that's a big part of our growth plan is to continue showing that growth there."

But attendance continues to be the school's biggest speed bump, he said.

"You never want to see those attendance issues, because the students aren't in there. They're not in there with that classroom teacher, they're not getting an instruction,” he said. “Something we're definitely gonna look into, you know, hopefully see improvement on next year, because it was high last year."

Markowitz said it’s hard to find Hispanic teachers and staff to fill roles that would better represent the school’s makeup.

“It seems like we’ve just been struggling to find that diversity,” he said. “And so definitely, that is a goal to build on.”

But Markowitz said his school hasn't had to deal with some of the teacher shortages that others around the county are grappling with.

"Ultimately, it is really building a good culture and making sure you're hiring people that are going to fit in with your culture. So I think we have good word of mouth with our staff, our team seems to be very happy,” he said. “And so we just try to take care of them."

Athenian Academy raised starting teacher salaries last school year and officials hope to raise them again with help from the community.

A property tax referendum that is up for a vote in August would boost Pasco County teacher salaries and bus driver wages.

“Hopefully, that'll pass,” Markowitz said. “It'll be something that helps.”

This was the last year that students took the Florida Standards Assessments, or FSA tests, which factor greatly into how schools and districts are graded.

The tests will be replaced with a progress monitoring system next school year.

But Markowitz said his school has already put its own progress monitoring in place.

“You can start identifying, ‘Okay, these are specific skills we need to reteach for our kids,’” he said. “In the same sense, too, for your kids that are doing very, very well, you want to provide that enrichment, too. Say, ‘Okay, these students are knocking out of the park, they're doing great. What can we do to enrich it to to push them further?’”

Before becoming principal, Markowitz was a music teacher at Athenian Academy. He said creating upward mobility for his teachers is important to him.

“We've created like team leaders, and so those are teachers we've identified to kind of move up in the chain,” he said. “It's definitely looking for opportunities to give our teachers at the school, opportunities to grow.”

Markowitz said charter schools can get a bad rap, but the autonomy that Athenian Academy enjoys has allowed teachers the freedom to make decisions which help students grow.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.