Joyce Marie Taylor
Central Hamilton Elementary School (CHE) has been recognized by the Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee as the number one elementary school in Region III making the highest gains in Differentiated Accountability (D.A.), as they emerged from intervene status imposed upon them by the Florida Department of Education for scoring an F grade three years in a row and then bringing their grade up to a C.
CHE Principal Lee Wetherington Zamora testified in front of the Florida House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee on Tuesday, Jan. 15, in response to successfully exiting intervene status for the 2011-12 school year.
According to Hamilton County Superintendent of Schools Thomas Moffses, Zamora was one of two principals in the state who were invited to the meeting to explain how they brought their school grade up from an F to a C. Two other charter school personnel were also invited to the meeting and offered information related to their charter implementations and scores.
Zamora, who admitted she was nervous, began her testimony to the subcommittee by saying, “I'm a worker. I'm not a talker,” however, Moffses said she did a fantastic job with her speech.
Zamora explained that she took over as principal of CHE by invitation and that she brought a few key people with her. Zamora was previously principal at North Hamilton Elementary.
“It was something I was asked to do and I welcomed the challenge,” she said.
Bringing the school's grade up from an F to a C, she explained, was her major objective.
“We really concentrated last year on getting the teachers to believe that this was possible,” she said. “I'm fairly competitive, I like a challenge, and I like my people to be excited about stuff,” she added.
Zamora said one challenge she encountered was the lack of morale at the school from students, teachers and parents because of the repeating F grade the school had three years in a row.
For a long time, she said, there was so much negativity associated with the school, but after she came on board and began turning things around, especially by utilizing a positive behavior program, that prevailing negativity eventually reversed into a positive trend that is continuing today.
The students who were behaving badly, she said, began noticing the other kids getting rewarded for positive behavior, so they decided to make changes with their own behavior in order to get those rewards, too.
“It has benefited the school,” Zamora said.
Zamora also said she likes to reward students for their hard work and give them encouragement. This year, she said, they are getting a lot more parent involvement.
“We are very excited about that,” she said.
Breaking classrooms up into smaller groups and tailoring reading and math instruction specific to each group helped tremendously, she said, as well as departmentalizing grade levels. Teachers were taught how to lower and/or raise the level of instruction depending on the students comprehension.
Federal school improvement grants, Zamora said, were also helpful in that they were able to hire additional personnel, such as reading and math coaches, as well as in-classroom tutors.
When Zamora completed her speech, Florida Representative Michael Bileca (Chair), stated, “You've done a phenomenal job talking and representing what you've been doing. I think you gave us a vivid picture, so you underestimate your talents there.”
Other members of the subcommittee also highly praised Zamora and her accomplishments at CHE.
"Central Hamilton Elementary demonstrated the most improvement in the FCAT portion of the school grading formula (76 points) of all 158 traditional (non-charter) combination schools between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012," noted Sam Foerster of FLDOE.
Foerster went on to say, "Central Hamilton Elementary was in the top 3 percent of all elementary schools in the state in terms of school grade improvement between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012."
Zamora was asked what obstacles she foresees that would prevent continued progress at CHE and what tools she felt she needed to improve the school even more.
Continued funding from the DOE that the school has been receiving while in intervene status, Zamora said, is essential in order to retain the current staff who helped turn the school around. Another obstacle, she added, is overcoming barriers that prevent her from building the image of the school, especially with parents and the community as a whole.