In the donut hole

Are we the hole in the healthy community donut?

It’s a question that Dr. John Lanza and his staff are looking at as they analyze data from the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that ranks counties in terms of health. Explore the data here.

“The best county in our state is St. Johns County and St. Augustine,” Lanza says. “Many of the people who live there, work in Duval County and Jacksonville. In St. Johns County, they don’t have the large urban area that Jacksonville has.”

They also are absent the large pocket of poverty that often comes with that large urban area.

It is the same kind of symbiotic relationship that Lanza sees between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

Escambia County is 59th healthiest out of 67 counties. Our bedroom community, Santa Rosa County, ranks eighth.

But Lanza urges care in reading the data. Escambia County ranks well in terms of residents who have a long commute — only 23 percent.

And that’s good news given what we know about the negative impacts sitting still — be it at the desk or behind the wheel — for long periods of time has on our health.

Our neighbors in Santa Rosa, 40 percent of them have a long commute and drive alone.

In terms of access to health care, residents of Escambia County are far better off when it comes to being able to see a dentist or to get mental health care based on the numbers.

But, Lanza notes, it’s likely that folks in Santa Rosa County access those things in Escambia County.

Then comes the Escambia squeeze.

The No. 2 county for health outcomes in Alabama is Baldwin County, the bedroom county nestled between Mobile and Pensacola.

Escambia County, Ala., our neighbor to the north, ranks 50th out of 67 counties in Alabama.

With communities to the east and west with better health outcomes, it is crucial that we take the health and wellness of our community as seriously as we take the availability of shovel-ready economic development sites.

That is an investment that is especially important to make in our children.

Because, friends, the data also show that for many of children, ours is a hard place to call home.

According to the County Health Rankings:

— 30 percent of children in Escambia County live in poverty.

— 10.4 percent of our infants are born at low birth weight, which puts them at greater risk for a host of health and developmental problems.

— 62 percent of high school students graduate, according to the data the study uses. It bases high school graduation rate on the percentage of the ninth-graders who graduate from high school in four years.

— 43 percent of children live in single-parent households.

— 30.6 percent of our middle and high school students are overweight or obese, according to Florida Department of Health data.

Even so, Lanza, a pediatrician by trade, believes our best chance for cultural change lies with children.

“I think that is our best hope, actually,” he says. “Public health works in trying to prevent health factors that lead to those negative health outcomes.

“The younger we can stop a child from smoking, from drinking, from being overweight or obese, the more we can do with pregnancy and STD prevention” the better off our community will be in the long run, he says.

“We have to reinforce the fact with our families that a high school diploma is expected, as is the opportunity for a job that has health benefits,” Lanza says. “We need to expect these things to happen. If we don’t, then it’s never going to happen.”

If we don’t expect those things, the donut hole we are in between Baldwin County, Ala., and Santa Rosa County, Fla., will never shrink.

It may even grow.

That won’t be good for recruiting new and emerging businesses, especially ones that pay a good wage and offer healthcare.

Without those varied and robust job opportunities, young people with the talent and ability will seek their fortunes elsewhere.

And the options for those who remain will be limited.

That’s not a hole any of us want to be stuck in.

Originally published March 31, 2015.

Testing, testing everywhere.

This is no way to run a railroad — or a state education system.

In recent weeks, problems with the Florida Standards Assessment writing test made headlines. Schools in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties reported problems and testing was suspended for a time.

After nearly three days of complaints from district across the state about the technical problems that plagued the online-only test, state officials announced that hackers are believed to be at the root of problems. The FDLE is investigating, but there has been no public word on progress since the news conference.

That’s not good business, friends. What makes it worse is that this isn’t the first time technology has failed our children and their teachers this school year.

Back in September, the state announced the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR) would not be given statewide for children in grade K-2. In Escambia County, the test was given to determine kindergarten readiness.

Why, pray tell?

The gory details are all here, but here is the bottom line. The test used to be pencil and paper. This year, it was all electronic.

Subs were needed to cover classroom time while teachers administered the test. Some districts’ computer systems couldn’t handle the demands of the test. Results wouldn’t upload, etc. etc. etc.

So when will we know how well prepared this year’s kindergarteners were when they came through the schoolhouse door?

Bruce Watson, executive director of the Escambia County Early Learning Coalition, says he has been told it will be sometime in May before the state will have kindergarten readiness scores.

You can search the readiness scores of VPK providers here.

And when those scores do come out, there will be a catch — as there so often seems to be with state education data.

These scores will be based on half of the information available in previous years, so they won’t be a strict apple-to-apples comparison.

This is how it starts.

When the FCAT was in its glory days, tinkering with the testing formula started small. Add writing. Add learning gains. Add science. Before long, the test had been so altered — the bar for “passing” fiddled with so prodigiously — that year-to-year comparisons became almost meaningless.

State lawmakers are falling all over themselves at this very moment to claim they are “easing the burden of testing” on our children by eliminating one test for high school juniors and culling the field of end-of-course tests.

To hear Tallahassee tell it, the scales have fallen from their eyes. They have heard the cries of parents, teachers and students over these last 15 years about overtesting.

They will sacrifice no more children on the false altar of “accountability” using measurements that are not consistent year over year.

And on the other hand, they marched students into a new testing system that has not been tested in the field — and apparently, is vulnerable to cyberattack.

Does that sound like seeing the light to you?

Originally published March 18, 2015.

All reading, all the time

Early intervention is best.

That’s the philosophy, Karen Barber says, that lies at the heart of a seven-year partnership between Santa Rosa County School District and the University of West Florida’s Community Outreach Research and Learning Center.

Barber is the director of federal programs for Santa Rosa schools. Her domain includes programs that use Title I money and federal funds intended to help low-income students.

Since 2008, Title I money has funded research by Carla Thompson and a group of observers who have watched nearly every elementary school teacher in the district at work.

The grant is for $53,449 a year.

“We are scientifically able to demonstrate that our interventions are working,” Barber says. “You can’t argue with the data. You can’t argue with the results that we’re getting.”

Loop of constant improvement

Since the project began, Thompson’s work has become a feedback loop that helps teachers focus on continual improvement.

“We have a philosophy that we want to provide as early intervention as possible so we get our kids who are below grade level on grade level,” Barber says.

Classroom teachers at all 17 elementary schools, as well as specialists, special education teachers and paraprofessionals get the training, which highlights the importance of small-group instruction in helping improve a child’s reading skill.

The observers conduct 1,500 observations a year, looking for 85 activities that may occur in reading instruction.

What are they looking for?

— Do they work in small groups?

— Are they doing a word ladder exercise, or a picture walk?

— Do students work independently?

— Is the teacher leading the discussion? Are the students asking questions?

Thompson takes the observational data and at the end of the year, she gets the reading test data and she matches them.

“With that data, we can say which activities are significant contributors to achievement and which ones are not,” Thompson said.

Thompson shares those results with principals to use in staff development or sometimes with parents groups.

They started in 2008 with four reading models. Now there are up to 64 teaching models that can be used in a classroom.

“The basic areas we look at match the FCAT: word study, fluency, comprehension and small group,” Thompson says.

What has all that focus meant?

Focus on reading

— Kindergarten shows the most growth of any year.

“The growth in kindergarten is probably the greatest every year that we do the study, and they have very strong readers in Santa Rosa,” Thompson says.

— “So much effort has been put on the struggling reader that now the gap is almost completely gone. It’s (narrowed) every year since this program started in 2008. And that’s the best, most important finding.”

—  ESE referrals have decreased significantly, Thompson says.

Thompson says the study reinforces the importance of the concept of early intervention and early parent and teacher involvement.

It is a secret, Thompson believes that is key to Santa Rosa’s success in posting — year after year — some of the best reading scores in the state.

“They are focused on early reading intervention every year,” she said.

“It is something that you are focused on and not just one of the six courses the child goes to,” she said. “Reading should be the major focus, and all of the effort is concentrated on professional development of the teachers.”

Originally published March, 19, 2015.

What you don't get from crime stats

There is always a story behind the data.

The Uniform Crime Report data is what every law enforcement agency turns into to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and ultimately to the FBI. The data provide a snapshot of the level and type of crime in a community.

This year the data for both the Pensacola Police Department and the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office saw drops in violent crime — or as Chief Deputy Eric Haines calls it, “the type of stuff that gets headlines.”

To Haines, the data offer a window into the kind of community we are — and want to be. The best-case scenario is that violent crime overall decreases over time. But many things factor into the index crimes.

“Index crimes have a lot more to do with the economy,” Haines says. “If they don’t have jobs and they aren’t employed, they steal more.”

He is wary of the influence social media has on the public perception of the safety of a community.

What makes a clever headline for a Facebook post doesn’t always reveal, Haines says, the whole story. That can take months to suss out, he says, “But no one will ever read the 800-page case file,” Haines says. “The truth takes a very long time to get to, months sometimes, and people want to know now why something happened.”

As an example, he points to the arrest of the Get Money team, a ring of people arrested last year in a string of as many as 50 car burglaries.

The Get Money Team, according to Haines, met at an alternative school. They trolled the parking lots of apartment complexes, looking for unlocked vehicles. Last summer, they could get as many as 30 or 40 cars a night, Haines says.

“They would be in and out in 15 minutes,” he said. “They were (working) everywhere.”

A video of the crew was posted to the Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page in July.

“If we hadn’t busted up that ring,” Haines says, “we would have had a bigger problem.”

That’s because, he says, a rival theft ring sprung up, and then some adults got involved in the group. The group, Haines says, was poised to move beyond breaking into people cars and stealing valuables out of them.

“They were getting into guns, some of them had raped a girl,” Haines said. “If we hadn’t broken it up, it would have ended up a lot worse in a year or two.”

If they hadn’t broken up the Get Money Team, the year’s burglary figures on the Uniform Crime Report might not have shown a decrease either, Haines said. The year 2014 saw 2,357 burglaries; 2013 saw 2,776.

And what the statistical gods give, they also take.

“The kids will all be getting out in a month or so,” Haines says, “so we will see what happens with the burglary."

Originally published March 9, 2015.