Cuts Students; Grade Goes Up
Orange's Oak Ridge High dropped 126 pupils shortly before
FCATs last year.
by Mary Shanklin, Oakland Sentinel, March 5, 2004
For more articles like this
Oak Ridge High
School in Orlando boosted its school grade from an F to a D last
year after purging its attendance roll of dozens of
low-performing and often-absent students in the weeks leading up
to the FCAT.
School records show 126 students dropped from the roll in
January 2003, the month before testing started -- about 5
percent of Oak Ridge's student body and twice as many students
dropped by any other Orange County high school that month.
Dozens of students appear to have been cut from school without
their parents' permission, a violation of state law if the teens
were younger than 18. What happened to many of those students,
and whether they ever returned to school, is uncertain.
Principal Brenda Wells denies that the dismissals had anything
to do with trying to improve test scores or the school's grade.
She said it was coincidental that so many students were
withdrawn before FCATs.
School Board attorney Frank Kruppenbacher, who said he had not
heard about the withdrawals until Thursday, promised to launch
an audit of the records immediately.
Jan Pratt, an associate superintendent over Oak Ridge since
January, said she would look into the number of students removed
from school, as well as whether any withdrawals were done
without parents' consent.
"There's no doubt, 126 kids in one month does seem like a lot,"
School Board member Kat Gordon, whose district includes Oak
Ridge, said this week that she was unhappy with the situation.
She said she contacted district officials months ago after
hearing complaints about mass withdrawals from parents and
"I still get complaints from teachers," Gordon said. "I'm not
going to be happy until we can come together with some kind of
happy medium on this."
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is the most important
series of exams students in grades three to 10 take each year.
Now under way in schools across the state, the FCAT determines
the letter grade given to a school each year. For some
principals, the results can make or break a career.
Oak Ridge, with its many poor and minority students, had slipped
from a C to an F in the years before Wells was brought on board
to turn things around.
About three-quarters of the students removed last year had at
least one F in their classes, according to records reviewed by
the Orlando Sentinel. About 80 percent were ninth- or
10th-graders -- a key group because Florida counts only the
scores of freshmen and sophomores for school grades.
Most of the students routinely missed classes -- a sore spot for
the school after it got slapped with an F rating in 2002 because
only 89 percent of the student body showed up for FCAT testing
instead of the required 90 percent.
What happened to the students who were dropped from school is
difficult to determine, in part because the school district
keeps their names confidential. Names were blacked out on the
records examined by the newspaper.
Of the 76 students withdrawn from Oak Ridge in January 2003 for
poor attendance -- the largest group among the 126 who were
dropped from the roll -- more than half returned to Oak Ridge or
enrolled in another school. Some came back to Oak Ridge in a
matter of weeks.
State law requires a parent's permission to remove a minor child
from school. Maritza Morrobel of Orlando said no one from the
school contacted her when they withdrew her son, Wilfredo
Morrobel, from Oak Ridge on Jan. 31, 2003. At the time, he was a
16-year-old freshman who missed school frequently.
She said she had gone to the school to inquire about an
alternative-education program that might better suit her son.
She remembers an Oak Ridge coach telling her he would call her
back with information about the program but no one ever did.
"I don't know what happened," Morrobel said. "They never
A year later, Wilfredo has started attending Mid-Florida
Technical School to get his high-school-equivalency degree and
take drafting classes.
Jonathan Kornexl was withdrawn because of poor attendance in
December 2002. He went to work at Cecil's Barbecue but is now
recuperating from an ankle injury.
"As soon as I got to Oak Ridge, I just stopped going," said
Kornexl, who hopes to get his high-school-equivalency degree and
study advanced automotive technology at a technical school. "I
just stopped going. I never officially withdrew."
Wells said the mass dismissal of students in January 2003
followed months of trying to boost the attendance of problem
students and counseling ninth-graders who might benefit by
transferring to vocational schools. The school registrar, who
supervises enrollment, was gone most of the month, so the
school's staff had to fill in, Wells said.
Those factors all led to the high January withdrawals, she said.
In some cases when parents did not sign forms, students were
simply transferring to another school, so they obviously had
parents' permission, Wells said. In the cases of absentee
students, letters from the school and calls to the parents did
not always succeed. By her count, the school was unable to get
parents' permission to drop about 17 students because of poor
"Seventeen out of 2,400 kids, I think that's pretty good," Wells
The principal said she had to drop absentee students from the
school roster. To keep them on the attendance rolls would be
improperly counting them as full-time students and unlawfully
accepting state money for their education.
"You're darned if you do and darned if you don't," said Wells,
who started as principal of Oak Ridge in 2002. "We did not want
it to look like we were trying to get money for kids who were
The biggest batch of withdrawals occurred Jan. 31, 2003, when at
least 27 students were dropped from the rolls. That was on a
Friday, the last school day before Oak Ridge started a
state-mandated student head count that would be key in
determining how many students needed to take the FCAT in order
for the school to avoid getting another automatic F because of
bad attendance on test days.
At least 15 students were withdrawn that Friday without parents'
permission, paperwork examined by the Sentinel shows. In one
case, an administrator signed on the line reserved for parents.
Eight of the students who were dropped without their parents'
written OK were ninth-graders. Wells said the eight probably
were 18-year-old ninth-graders, not needing permission. Their
ages could not be determined because clerks who prepared the
records for the newspaper blacked out dates of birth on
withdrawal forms, saying it might identify the students.
After the newspaper asked to see the records in December,
withdrawals at Oak Ridge this January fell by half. Even so, Oak
Ridge still dropped more students in the weeks before testing
and the critical head count than any other high school in Orange
Wells said the Oak Ridge withdrawals are not excessive
considering attendance is among the worst in the county. Almost
one in four students at the 2,400-pupil campus missed more than
four weeks of school last year, state records show.
"I don't know if other schools aren't following the procedures
for nonattendance," she said.
Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Frances Marine said
the state depends on school districts to track any spikes or
dips in enrollment before the February head count. The state
primarily focuses on attendance changes between the head count
and the beginning of testing in mid-February, she said.
She said the department was not aware of the Oak Ridge situation
and knew of no cases in the state where attendance had been
manipulated to affect the FCAT.
But the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy,
affiliated with Boston College, reported in January that the
easiest way for schools to increase test scores is to exclude
low-performing students from being tested.
Orlando's Jones High has an even higher absentee rate than Oak
Ridge. Principal Lorenzo Phillips said he's reluctant to
withdraw truant students before testing or anytime. Jones
dropped only five students the same month Oak Ridge withdrew
"I want kids because I need the money," said Phillips, who like
Wells was tapped to improve an F-rated school.
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