Jane Watt and Melissa Scott are all smiles these days and rightly so.
The leaders of Marco Island Academy are celebrating the testing gains their students made in 2014 — both in the end of course tests and the FCAT-2.0. MIA’s first-time test-takers made the largest gains of any high school in Collier County in Algebra and the second largest for both U.S. History and Reading. Overall, in learning gains, MIA ranked first amongst all Collier County high schools in Biology and U.S. History, second in Geometry and third in Algebra.
“This really sets us up for success,” says Scott, MIA’s new principal. “The kids believed they could do it. They knew it was important and knew they needed to show up. They were ready to test; they really cared. You can’t teach that. It is created.”
Add the stellar scores to MIA’s recent accreditation, and Watt hopes the recipe results in an “A” grade for the local charter high school she founded and chairs. With ever-increasing interest in the school and the subsequent rising enrollment numbers, all of these factors take on greater importance as Watt and Development Director Tina Nash embark on a new $750,000 fundraising campaign for the school. They have plans to add two more classrooms and an outdoor science lab by the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year.
“When people who are contributing to the school see success is tied to it, it makes a huge difference,” Watt explains. “From the donors’ perspective, it is right here, and they can come to the school and see it in action — see a direct impact of their contribution on the kids and education. They can see it right in their own backyard.”
Testing the boundaries
To be sure, MIA’s 2014 test scores and new accreditation should result in a grade higher than the one the school received in 2013, which was a “D.” The reason for the low grade: Because MIA did not have a graduating class last year, the state of Florida graded it on the same scale it uses for elementary schools. This meant certain factors used to grade high schools — participation and performance in accelerated classes and college readiness — were not included in the state’s assessment of MIA’s student performance. Even so, MIA still was compared to other high schools when considering overall achievement.
“I felt the grading misrepresented the school in a big way; it was not a direct reflection of the students and staff,” says Watt. “It didn’t accurately reflect how the students were doing or how the school were doing. Our kids out-performed the district and state in everything but Algebra (in 2013), and we received a D… Algebra was a heavy percentage of the school grade.”
For the 2014 school year, though, MIA was considered a full-fledged high school, complete with a graduating class, a 100 percent graduation rate and a new Algebra teacher. As Watt and Scott look to the fall for the state to release the school grades, they are more than optimistic; they are ecstatic.
MIA’s largest increases in test scores came from first-time test-takers, where student passing rates went from 80 percent to 84 percent in Geometry, 39 percent to 91 percent in Algebra, 70 percent to 96 percent in U.S. History, and 57 percent to 71 percent in Reading. The school’s first-time test-takers ranked first overall amongst all Collier County high schools in Biology, Geometry, Reading, U.S. History and Algebra. MIA was also ranked first in the district in 10th grade FCAT Writing.
In comparison to all high schools across Florida, the testing results also showed MIA excelling, as overall the students led state passing averages in Biology by 19 percent, Geometry by 18 percent, Algebra by 10 percent and U.S. History by 27 percent.
Despite the gains, Watt and Scott are not resting on their laurels. In fact, Scott already is working on a new remediation program for those students who struggled through the testing process. “Our focus is on continual improvement. The second you feel like everything is good you are falling behind. (Melissa) is the perfect person for that role. She is constantly identifying the weaknesses and incorporating the modifications before they become an issue,” Watt notes.
The two women also embrace the struggles of 2013 and use them to support the students and move the school into the future. “It really made us stronger,” admits Watt. “Some times you have to go through things that are really, really hard. It makes you better. All we know is that our kids are doing well, and MIA is doing better.
Scott agrees: “I will show you through happy students, productivity and good test scores where this school is headed.”
Planning and fundraising
While student achievement is headed skyward, so is MIA’s budget and fundraising efforts. The school received a $96,000 boost of capital outlay funding from the state thanks to its accreditation. The amount was retroactive back to the beginning of 2013, and was a huge help in covering a shortfall in the school’s budget. According to Watt, the capital outlay funding helped cover the leases in the school’s modular classrooms.
For the coming year, Watt and Nash are looking to raise $750,000, an amount that includes operational, athletic and school expansion budgets. A big emphasis will be on planning for the future and raising funds in advance of any expansion. “We are continually fundraising; it is part of what we do,” says Watt. “Tina and I have been working very close together on what we need to raise over the next year. We already are full with what we have right now, and we need to be able to fit more kids in.”
In addition to three events — a golf outing affiliated with the Gene and Mary Sarazen Foundation (Nov. 15), the Second Annual Bill Rose Sporting Clays Classic (Jan. 24, 2015), and an event hosted at the home of Bill and Karen Young (TBD) — Watt and Nash are coordinating the school’s annual fund, and will be seeking quarterly contributions. Nash also is weaving her way through the local business community to drum up financial support and sponsorships for MIA’s athletic programs. Last year, the athletic budget was $88,000.
“Tina’s style is very different from mine,” Watt notes. “She listens far better than I have ever been able to, and is able to help donors identify what is important to them.”
For instance, with the help of local businessman and Senior Vice President of Morgan Stanley Terry McCreanor, MIA will install a nautical flag pole in front of the school in time for the 2014-2015 school year. Watt and Nash are reaching out to local veterans who are interested in purchasing a paver with their name, station and area of service on it to complete the flag plaza. The school administration plans to have a special dedication ceremony sometime in September.
Those interested in donating to MIA or finding out more about the school, should contact Nash at 239-393-5133.
In the end, it is clear that Watt, Scott and Nash are just getting started. They’ve learned from the past, employed the lessons in the present, and are looking to the future.
“There has been a lot of learning along the way; each year we have gotten better, stronger, smarter,” Watt says. “I feel really good about how this year ended, but I feel like we are just getting started. With Melissa and Tina in their roles, we are right on the cusp of big breakthroughs…We never intended to be a big school. We are going to a few things, and we are going to them better than anyone else. You will get the best of the best here.”