How Florida’s Lowest Performing School Improved from an “F” to an “A” After Partnering with LSI


An inside look at a radically different approach to school improvement emphasizing two missing pieces of typical whole-school reform: student agency and academic rigor.

By: Michael Toth


Illiteracy and Dampened Life Chances

Before Lakewood Elementary School in Pinellas County, Florida began its partnership with Learning Sciences International (LSI) in 2018, 87% of its third-graders were reading at a kindergarten level.

I had never seen anything that dire in terms of literacy development.

Our Applied Research Center works with many struggling schools around the country, but it’s always hard to see students who face more than their fair share of obstacles outside of school not having their learning needs met in school.

Lakewood had wavered between a “D” and “F” school grade since 2013, and in 2018 it was the lowest-performing traditional public school in the entire state (Florida Department of Education, 2018). Traditional public schools are defined as all schools besides charter schools, ESE centers, alternative schools, and district virtual schools.

See figure 1 for Lakewood’s proficiency scores in 2018.

Lakewood’s Proficiency in 2018 (Pre-LSI Partnership)
Reading Math Science
18% 22% 12%

Figure 1. In 2018, Lakewood’s school letter grade was the worst among all traditional public schools in the state of Florida, with low proficiency in all subjects (reading, math, and science).

Lakewood Faces Potential Closure for Low Performance

I received a call from the Pinellas County Schools superintendent, Dr. Michael Grego. Dr. Grego faced a strict new law from the state which compelled districts to make a tough decision about persistently failing schools like Lakewood:

    1. Close the school and reassign students
    2. Close the school and reopen it as a charter school
    3. Contract with an outside entity that has a demonstrated record of effectiveness to operate the school (External Operator)

Dr. Grego believed Lakewood could be turned around and opted for the third choice, hiring an External Operator. He asked me if LSI would be willing to partner with the district and Lakewood to bring the school up to a “C” or higher, and we agreed.

I’ve worked with Dr. Grego on several projects in the past, and I appreciate that he is a visionary superintendent who wants to focus on instruction and academics. I was eager for LSI to bring a radically different school improvement approach to Lakewood and grateful that Pinellas County Schools wanted to invest in the school and trusted us to be their partner.

What is involved with being an External Operator for a Low Performing School?
As an External Operator, LSI takes on primary responsibility for:

  • All school academic programs
  • Oversight, selection, placement, coaching, evaluation, assignment of responsibilities, and re-assignment of school leadership and instructional personnel
  • Professional development
  • Identification, training, and coaching of professional learning community leaders
  • Student academic assessment and development of curriculum and instructional materials
Why Lakewood Was Labeled a “Failure Factory”

When LSI took on the partnership with Pinellas and Lakewood, we knew that a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by the Tampa Bay Times had dubbed the school a “failure factory” (Fitzpatrick et al., 2015).

But it wasn’t until our LSI faculty visited Lakewood for the first time that we saw for ourselves how challenging the school was.

Negative student behavior created an environment where it was simply impossible for students to learn. One of LSI’s School Leadership Coaches had to break up a student fight just to get through the front door.

A Lakewood teacher said, “it felt like working in a war zone.” Six- and seven-year-olds were fighting, throwing books and chairs, and exhibited negative behavior toward one another and their teachers.

At any given time, dozens of Lakewood students walked out of class and wandered around the hallways and courtyard in the middle of instructional time.

Our initial diagnostic testing showed the vast majority of students were more than two grade levels behind in academics.

Unable to deal with the conditions, many teachers resigned or transferred out – sometimes in the middle of the school year – creating even more instability for students.

Imagine 87% of third-graders reading at a kindergarten level in the lowest-performing public school in the entire state of Florida. Read how LSI helped Lakewood Elementary become an A school. @MTothLSI via @Learn_Sci… Click To Tweet
What Happens When Students Who Are Disadvantaged Don’t Get What They Need from School? 

Lakewood Elementary School serves a disadvantaged demographic, with 100% of their students receiving free and reduced meals and 15% homeless or in foster care. See figure 2 for the school’s demographics.

“Our students often come to school hungry, unbathed, and they might arrive late or not at all due to transportation issues. Their parents may be incarcerated, and students might be bouncing around from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends’ houses. We actually have a few students who are living in shelters. It’s a challenge for them to come to school with all of that baggage and be ready to learn.”

Bridget Harden, first grade teacher at Lakewood


Lakewood Elementary School Demographics
Number of  students: 405 Percent Black: 95%
Number of core teachers: 33 Percent White 3%
Percent free and reduced meals: 100% Percent Hispanic 1%
Percent homeless or in foster care 15% Percent two or more races 1%
Percent special education 15%

Figure 2. Lakewood’s demographics, as reported by the principal in 2019.


National research shows that among students who experience persistent poverty, only 63.5% earn a high school diploma, 3.2% complete college, and 35.4% are consistently employed between ages 25-30 (Ratcliffe, 2015).

Public schools were meant to be the great equalizers that equip students like Lakewood to lift themselves out of generational poverty. But with the serious academic and behavioral challenges Lakewood faced, students’ life chances looked bleak.


Mutual Accountability Partnership for Lakewood’s Success

Our Applied Research Center team conducted a School Comprehensive Needs Assessment (SCNA) to determine the root causes of the observed issues in order to best serve Lakewood – see results below.

Lakewood’s School Comprehensive Needs Assessment (SCNA) Results
Root causes of low performance according to LSI’s Applied Research Center analysis Existing school strengths LSI’s recommendations
  • Low-rigor, teacher-centered instruction with no use of standards-based learning targets
  • No apparent tracking of student learning during daily lessons
  • Weak to non-existent PLC structures
  • Lack of accountability and lack of data-driven systems to move student achievement
  • Eager staff willing to implement more rigorous instructional strategies
  • Openness to establishing new systems and procedures to support student learning
  • Replace the principal with an instructional leader who would participate in leadership coaching support and follow through with setting up and monitoring systems and procedures for accountability
  • Intensive coaching for the staff to put into place appropriate systems for operational and academic work
  • Reduce the number of initiatives required of the school, allowing the new principal to focus on strengthening core instruction


LSI’s team presented our recommended action plan to Pinellas County Schools. We wanted a true partnership, deepening the work Pinellas County Schools was already doing at Lakewood and helping the district create sustainable systems that aligned to their vision.

The district agreed with LSI’s plan, and the first step was getting the right leaders and faculty in place. Lakewood had already had three principals in only three years, and Stephanie Woodford became the fourth.

The district named Woodford the interim principal because of her experience and commitment. LSI’s School Leadership Coach recognized additional leadership qualities the school needed in Woodford – she had high expectations for her staff, the ability to inspire people, tenacity, and a keen eye for organization, all of which would be crucial in our partnership of rebuilding Lakewood’s instructional systems.

LSI recommended that the interim appointment become permanent, and the district agreed. Together, LSI and Lakewood’s leadership team began the arduous journey of getting the right school staff in place, replacing 23 core teachers.

Each month, our LSI team and Lakewood’s new leadership team reported out progress to district leaders using LSI’s scientific measure of instruction (Rigor Diagnostic) which is correlated to state test scores.

Rigor Diagnostic is a process using scientific indicators to inspect academic rigor and student engagement in the classroom. The Rigor Diagnostic process involves collecting these indicators of academic rigor and engagement across a random sample of classrooms through walks by administrator and teacher teams. The results are compiled without identifying the teachers to create a composite Rigor Diagnostic score for the classroom instruction in the school. The Rigor Diagnostic scores have been scientifically correlated to state assessments as a predictive measure. This allows for a process to scientifically “benchmark” the rigor and engagement of instruction for purposes of continuous improvement.

The school also used RigorWalk® to track data on a weekly basis and ensure the school was making steady progress.

RigorWalk, similar to Rigor Diagnostic, is a lighter weight set of scientific indicators of the rigor and engagement of classroom instruction that principals and their leadership teams can use to guide instructional improvements for the school.

If an area wasn’t improving on the indicators, then LSI, the district, and the school leadership team worked together to make the changes needed. LSI jumped in side-by-side with the school and district and held ourselves accountable for the results.

The district made sure the school had the services and faculty needed to keep the focus on children, and LSI maintained an unrelenting focus on improving the foundational conditions at Lakewood and then transitioning to the student agency and academic rigor that we knew would improve both student achievement and students’ life skills.

The powerful combination of LSI’s expertise and metrics, the district’s support and resources, and the school team’s knowledge of their students and commitment to improving instruction made for a strong turnaround effort.


What is the Typical Approach to School Improvement – and Does it Work?

I’ve visited many schools with the same challenges that Lakewood faced. Unfortunately, the most common response I’ve observed is for districts to place a strict “commander” principal in the school to lock it down into an environment of control where students are told exactly what to do and when to do it.

While that approach can reduce behavior incidents, it often feels oppressive to students of color, doesn’t address the root cause of negative behavior (low rigor and low engagement academics), and ultimately fails to help students develop the skills they need to succeed in life.

The default for school improvement has been highly scripted and prescriptive programs. The U.S. Department of Education has approved only three proprietary programs for whole-school reform, all of which fit into the highly scripted, prescriptive category (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

Districts spend a large proportion of their School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds on contracted services such as these programs, and yet research has shown that SIG-funded models had no statistically significant impact on test scores or student outcomes within subgroups (Dragoset et al., 2017).


The Two Missing Pieces of School Improvement

While conducting research for a book I co-authored with neuroscience expert David Sousa, I found overwhelming evidence that students become more engaged and learn more deeply and effectively when given the chance to exercise their agency and tackle academically rigorous tasks in teams (Toth & Sousa, 2019).

And yet, a focus on developing high levels of student agency and academic rigor are not aspects that I’ve ever seen emphasized in traditional whole-school reform programs.

Student agency and academic rigor are the two missing pieces of the typical school turnaround approach, and exactly what Lakewood’s students needed to experience success.


What is Student Agency?
Student agency means that students are able to:

  • Establish worthy goals
  • Organize actions toward their goals
  • Self-reflect on progress and make corrective actions
  • Develop persistence

Peer or collective agency means individuals use their agency to support the collective group norms to achieve greater goals.

In classrooms, peer agency means students collaborate to tackle a challenging academic task together and support one another’s goal of achieving high standards of learning.

In classrooms, peer agency means students collaborate to tackle a challenging academic task together and support one another’s goal of achieving high standards of learning.

Agency is a developmental process requiring a gradual release of responsibility with autonomy. In order to build agency, students must have access to a learning environment with:

  • Roles
  • Responsibilities
  • Norms of conduct
  • Structures


What is Academic Rigor?
Academic rigor is when the learning tasks and resources embody the intent and rigor of the standard(s).

An academically rigorous task also:

  • Meets the desired taxonomy level of student evidence for the standard
  • Integrates and leverages grade-level complex texts and high-quality resources
  • Incorporates success criteria for students to self-assess and self-correct their learning

The ultimate goal of academic rigor is to build up to academically rich tasks which:

  • Require students to activate peer support and collaboration during the learning process
  • Give students opportunities to exercise professional mindsets such as student mathematicians, authors, scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. (Demonstrates the standard in the context as it was intended to be used.)
  • Include culturally responsive images and representations in resources. (Activates and responds to students’ interest and experience.)


Why are Student Agency and Academic Rigor Essential for Equity and Access?

Unfortunately, the students who are most likely to attend schools with low-rigor, low-agency learning environments are the same students who face the most severe systemic disadvantages.

Many Black and Brown students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are never given the opportunity in their K-12 education to experience high levels of student agency or academic rigor.

Virtually all of the high-poverty districts in the United States have student performance levels below the national average (Boschma & Brownstein, 2016), meaning that students in these schools are not achieving the full intent and rigor of the academic standards at their grade level. Separate research found that in classrooms where a majority of students were of color, 4 out of 10 never received a single grade-level-appropriate assignment (TNTP, 2018).

Black and Brown students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are also more likely to experience controlling school environments where they are given little autonomy and few chances to drive their own goals.

Research suggests that urban schools have stricter school discipline practices and that significant disparities in exclusionary discipline exist for Black and Latino students in urban, rural, and suburban schools (Varela et al., 2017). Inequitable and overly strict discipline practices indicate that students in these schools likely have little chance to develop high levels of agency in school.

Many of these high-poverty, urban schools serving mostly Black and Brown students are the same schools that end up perpetuating the issues of low-rigor, low-agency learning by using the typical school improvement approaches – an overemphasis on programs coupled with high doses of remediation and interventions.

In essence, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color are more likely than their more advantaged peers to find themselves in schools where they have few opportunities to exercise their agency or engage in academically rigorous tasks.

Research says Black and Brown students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to experience overcontrolling school environments and below-grade-level instruction. @MTothLSI via @Learn_Sci… Click To Tweet



11 School Improvement Strategies Lakewood Emphasized to Achieve Agency and Rigor

Lakewood Elementary implemented LSI’s school improvement approach, including 11 unique strategies that are radically different from typical school reform and emphasize agency and rigor.

      1. Empower students to create a positive school culture rather than creating an overcontrolled environment
      2. Leverage student-peer relationships, not just student-teacher relationships
      3. Focus on academics as the root cause of negative student behavior, not as an unrelated issue
      4. Accelerate in Tier 1 core instruction rather than over-relying on remediation and interventions
      5. Encourage students to track their own academic progress rather than leaving it to the teacher alone
      6. Release students to productive struggle and increase academic rigor and challenge – don’t rely on worksheets, water down student tasks, or “overteach”
      7. Become an agile school relying on short-cycle data (weekly metrics of academic rigor and engagement) instead of relying on lagging assessment data
      8. Create a teacher coaching and support system rather than providing one-off professional development opportunities
      9. Go beyond standard-based lesson planning by focusing on whether instruction translates to student evidence of learning the standard
      10. Empower teachers as experts and build ownership in PLCs instead of scripting instruction
      11. Build and leverage community support rather than leaving parent and family engagement on the back burner


For more details on each strategy, see 11 School Improvement Secrets for Radically Different Results.


How Agency and Rigor Affected Student Behavior at Lakewood
A student holds up a paper showing academic team norms. He is pointing to one of the norms. Caption: Lakewood Elementary School students take ownership of their behavior and self-regulate by following consistent protocols.

Lakewood students take ownership of their own behavior and self-regulate by following consistent protocols.

As Lakewood and LSI began our partnership, we knew that the first priority was improving the school’s conditions – addressing the out-of-control student behavior issues to create an environment where all students could learn.

But why were students misbehaving?

Research shows that teachers tend to attribute misbehavior to the student and their home life (Kulinna, 2007-2008) and many whole-school reform programs follow suit by creating systems of control where students have little voice.

But at Lakewood, we focused on empowering students to be leaders of a positive, academically focused school culture.


“Most of the time, behavior problems stem from academics. Imagine if you’re a 9- or 10-year-old boy sitting in fourth grade and you’re reading at a kindergarten level. You become a behavior problem because you’re embarrassed and you’re frustrated. I would estimate roughly 90% of the behavior problems we had initially were academic concerns – not actually behavior. The classroom may not be engaging or rigorous enough, or it may not be supporting students to fill in their gaps – it could be any number of academic issues.”

 – Stephanie Woodford, principal at Lakewood Elementary 2018-2021


Principal Woodford described the school’s “most extreme student” in terms of behavior, a second-grader who could not read. After experiencing Lakewood’s new school culture where all students self-tracked their own progress and cheered one another to academic success, this student made honor roll and became a safety patrol, scored a level four out of five on the state test, and is now starting middle school in honors classes.

Negative behavior referrals dropped dramatically in the first year of Lakewood’s new turnaround approach and have remained low since then. See figure 3.

Bar chart of student behavior referrals at Lakewood, 2018-2021 (see caption for numbers)

Figure 3. Referrals are used when student misbehavior is too severe for the teacher to handle through classroom management, which necessitates the school’s behavior team to intervene. Lakewood students had 734 referrals in 2018, before Lakewood and LSI started their partnership. Referrals dropped to 207 in 2019, 84 in 2020, and 81 in 2021.

Beyond the decrease in negative student behavior, Lakewood began to experience a student-centered school culture shift.

In turnaround schools that use the typical approaches, you might see improved conditions in terms of a more controlled environment – but you only see a true culture shift when students have opportunities to exercise peer agency to self and co-regulate their own behavior.

As I discussed earlier, peer agency is when students support one another to achieve a common worthy goal. This is what made Lakewood’s turnaround radically different from other approaches to school improvement – students rallied around a common goal of staying in class, learning, and improving their academics.

“By the end of the first year [of partnership with LSI], we saw students start to take ownership of their own behavior and their peers’ behavior. I watched in awe as an older kid told me, ‘Ms. Araujo, I got this,’ and he stepped in to help a student who was in the hall crying, convincing the student to re-enter the classroom. Our fifth-graders who used to have huge behavior issues themselves now want to become student mentors for our younger students. When our scholars started forming relationships with each other it was one of the coolest things to see.”

– Natalie Araujo, behavior coach at Lakewood Elementary

Something that really stood out to me when I visited Lakewood – and which I think was vital to developing student agency, academic rigor, and improving conditions and behavior – was that Lakewood’s staff had genuine love and care for the students while maintaining high expectations.

Students knew their roles and responsibilities in the learning partnership and how they needed to behave, but they also knew they were loved and supported by their teachers, school leaders, and staff.

As I talked to Principal Woodford, students walked up and hugged her. Woodford asked each of them what they were going to do to be successful that day.

As I walked classrooms, I met one of the behavior team staff members in the hallway as she held a young girl’s hand and talked to her. I later found out that the student’s mother had just died from a drug overdose and her father was in prison. The student didn’t yet have the self-regulatory skills to stay in a classroom for long, but Lakewood’s staff was working hard to help her get socialized.

Knowing that Lakewood went from being a place of constant student fights, elopement, and chaos to a learning environment of care, rigor, and agency over the course of our three-year partnership makes me incredibly proud of Lakewood’s staff and our own LSI faculty.


How Agency and Rigor Affected Student Engagement at Lakewood
Four students in sit at a table together in a classroom, with notebooks and pencils and other materials, talking to one another and clearly engaged. Caption: Lakewood Elementary School students collaborate while working on rigorous academic tasks.

Lakewood students collaborate while working on rigorous academic tasks.

As the conditions for learning at Lakewood improved with students taking ownership of their own behavior, students began engaging more deeply with their peers and their learning through Academic Teaming.

Academic Teaming is a collaborative structure where students have roles and responsibilities and tackle rigorous academic tasks together. It is a culturally responsive and inclusive form of core instruction.

When I visit classrooms that are just starting out with Academic Teaming, I’ve noticed that students immediately begin to connect with each other. One first-grade teacher at Lakewood shared a story about a student who had Selective Mutism and would barely speak to anyone. Once the teacher started using Academic Teaming structures, the student became comfortable enough with her peers to start talking to them and engaging in the academic task. The student even opened up on a personal level, and the teacher said she became much more confident in the classroom.

While the typical engagement strategies used for school improvement – such as cooperative learning, choral response, rapid-fire questions, and interactive but low-rigor games – can help students engage, they can only go so far in developing high levels of self and co-regulation.

As Academic Teaming structures become established in the classroom with protocols for developing agency, students go beyond basic engagement and social bonding. Students experience academic productive struggle – many for the first time in school.

As I wrote in my blog on why student engagement is important and how to improve it, the productive struggle is an essential part of deeper engagement. Productive struggle allows students to actively discover new understanding instead of passively receiving information from the teacher.

The definition of productive struggle is:

“Students grapple with and solve a question or problem that is just beyond their current level of understanding and that requires them to examine multiple avenues of thought. Students wrestle with ideas yet persevere and come up with solutions themselves” (Toth & Sousa, 2019, p. 12).

Productive struggle requires teachers to provide well-designed tasks and then step back and release students to Academic Teaming structures, where students build their agency by relying on their resources and one another instead of depending solely on the teacher.

As students move from dependent learners to independent thinkers, they engage with their learning and begin to access new levels of academic rigor that they may never have experienced before. Students believe in themselves and invest their discretionary effort into their learning.

 “We engage in a lot of productive struggle in my classroom. Many of our students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and have experienced trauma. When they perceive something to be difficult, a lot of them shut down and they don’t want to do the work. But putting them in an academic team really helps. Their peers tell them ‘we can do this, we’ll figure it out.’ Even the reluctant learners who would usually sit back see their peers doing the work and join in. They realize they’re not going to fail because their teammates will help them. They talk about how they solved the problem and what they thought. It’s interesting to see when kids solve it two different ways. I listen to them explain to their teammates: ‘I thought it was addition because…’ or ‘I thought it was subtraction because…’ and they’re able to work it out and decide for themselves what’s correct.”

 – Bridget Harden, first-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary

How Agency and Rigor Affect Teacher Capacity and Retention at Lakewood
Wall with teacher professional development areas including target task alignment, team talk, learning targets and success criteria, mini lesson, and purposeful task. Teachers’ names are under each area showing their progress in that area. Caption: Lakewood’s coaches and leadership team helped teachers grow by creating a visible wall tracking progress based on classroom observations. Teachers received support to grow in each tracked area through LSI’s Growth Tracker.

Lakewood’s coaches and leadership team helped teachers grow y creating a visible wall tracking progress based on classroom observations. Teachers received support to grow in each tracked area through LSI’s Growth Tracker

One of the major teacher complaints I’ve heard about typical school improvement models is that the curriculum is heavily scripted. Scripts give teachers very little professional freedom. As one Lakewood teacher said, “Everything was scripted: how the lesson went, what moment everything was supposed to happen.”

At schools like Lakewood, I think teacher satisfaction is generally quite low not only because teachers feel overwhelmed by student behavior and under-supported by administrators, but many teachers also don’t get to experience positive, academically focused challenges.

When traditional Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) meet, if at all, it is often out of obligation and much of the time is spent talking about student behaviors or exchanging lesson plans without any critical discussions.

What is missing from the typical PLCs in school improvement contexts is a real sense of team collaboration, productive struggle, accountability to student data, and teacher agency.

It’s not just students who benefit from productive struggle – most teachers also find fulfillment in the challenge of working with their peers to design academically rigorous tasks, identify needed adjustments based on student data, and improve their professional capacity.

“We started to do things differently in our PLCs. I began to send out the standard and success criteria ahead of time, and everyone would bring their ideas to the PLC. Together we would create a graphic organizer and we would ask each other ‘Is this aligned to the standard? Is this going to get our students where they need to be?’ It was all about designing the tasks to get our students to success. Our new PLC sessions helped teachers develop confidence, because teachers built the tasks and lessons, and they owned them. Teachers no longer had to say ‘Let me go and look at that script and see where I’m at.’ They’re now very secure – you can see the confidence.”

– Michelle Summers, reading instructional coach at Lakewood in 2021 and reading recovery teacher in 2022


One of Lakewood’s teachers remarked that it was “life-changing” to not have to follow the curriculum as a script and to be able to instead lean on her PLC team and shift gears if her students were not learning effectively. “I’m the expert in my classroom,” she said. “The curriculum is just a resource.”

At many low-performing schools, teacher turnover is a dire issue, and Lakewood had been no different in the past – as one Lakewood staff member said, “When I first got here, it was like a revolving door – teachers coming in, teachers coming out.”

When Lakewood teachers began to feel more supported by PLCs and coaching from LSI and the Lakewood leadership team, more teachers decided to stay, and students were able to build lasting relationships with them. See figure 4 for teacher turnover rates.


Bar chart showing the number of Lakewood teachers replaced, out of 33. 23 in 2018 (pre-LSI), 5 in 2019 (after 1 year with LSI), 1in 2021 (after 3 years with LSI)

Figure 4. Teacher turnover decreased from 23 out of 33 replaced before LSI partnered with Lakewood, to only five teachers replaced after one year of partnership and one teacher replaced after three years of partnership.



“When our students connect with their teachers, it breaks them to lose that person. I think it’s because they have so much change in their life outside of school; they might be sleeping on sofas and going from one family to the next. School is the place where they need consistency. Unfortunately, they were used to walking in every August to new faces. To now see the same staff, the same principal, the same student services team and behavior team—that’s really amazing for our students and for us.”

Stephanie Woodford, principal at Lakewood Elementary 2018 – 2021

How Agency and Rigor Affected Student Academic Outcomes at Lakewood
A student sits holding a notebook in one hand with her learning targets and success criteria and a pencil in the other to check them off. Caption: Lakewood Elementary School student tracks her own academic progress toward one of her daily learning targets.

A Lakewood student tracks her own academic progress toward one of her daily learning targets.


The ultimate goal of improving student behavior, engagement, and teacher capacity is to support student academic outcomes and life skills development – setting students up for success later in life.

Starting from the first year of our partnership, Lakewood used short-cycle data from classroom RigorWalks and examination of student work to closely track students’ academic progress and make adjustments in real time.

The usual metrics schools use to track student progress are long-cycle data (such as state test scores, benchmark or diagnostic testing, and end-of-course assessments).

Instead, Lakewood used an agile data review process that our Applied Research Center coaches many schools on, which includes weekly metrics via and continuous improvement meetings.

“Communication about student data happens every day here. In PLCs, in grade level teams that meet with the principal, in our daily 15-minute standups where the data is posted on a wall which is constantly being updated. Ten times a day I’m talking about data. Every meeting, no matter what we’re doing, we’re talking about data.”

– Natalie Araujo, behavior coach at Lakewood Elementary

But what really made Lakewood’s data efforts radically different than the typical school improvement approaches was the role that students had in the data process and the agency that students experienced as a result.

In most schools, it’s up to the teacher alone to track academic progress, but Lakewood gave students unprecedented access to their own data and expected students to set their own goals and persist toward them.

Lakewood staff sat down with students individually and explained what their data meant and how students could improve it.

Student data was also posted publicly in classrooms, but every teacher we interviewed emphasized that students never used the data to bully one another – students actually used the transparent data to cheer one another on and motivate themselves to achieve at higher and higher levels.

Every day during Lakewood’s end-of-day announcements, the principal called out the names of every student who hit a new milestone in their data, further reinforcing students’ motivation and agency. The school’s behavior coach said, “Students ask us to see their data now. We’re not forcing it on them – they want to know how to improve themselves.”

“I believe you cannot turn a school around with just teachers owning the data. You can only turn around a school when students own their data. That was a big lesson for me and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Stephanie Woodford, principal at Lakewood Elementary 2018 – 2021

In addition to academic data tracking, there was another major factor that set our school improvement approach at Lakewood apart and resulted in incredible academic outcomes.

Typical school improvement approaches largely focus on remediation – attempting to “meet students where they are” by teaching below grade level. With this approach, students often get stuck in a cycle of interventions and never experience academically rigorous, grade-level content.

In Florida’s letter grade system, schools can receive a temporary boost in their letter grade if students make learning gains, but that letter grade then drops down or plateaus the next year. This is because students never actually achieved grade level proficiency.

Traditional intensive interventions will get you learning gains – for example, a third-grade student reading at a kindergarten level might go up to a first- or second-grade level. But in order to get to proficiency and beyond – the same student reading at a third-grade level or higher – you have to create structures that push and support students to work on academically rigorous tasks and texts at their own grade level.

Lakewood’s grade level proficiency and learning gains were both high. See the school’s overall proficiency and learning gain scores from 2018-2021 in figure 5. Figures 6 and 7 show proficiency by grade level.

“After the pandemic, a lot of schools were saying students needed to catch up. We found as our students went along at their own grade level, they got it. But this is not the way we always did it. Some teachers used to assume the grade level content was ‘too high for them.’ Things have changed. We now teach at students’ grade level.”

– Michelle Summers, reading instructional coach at Lakewood in 2021 and reading recovery teacher in 2022


Lakewood’s proficiency scores and learning gains. 2018 is pre-LSI and there were no scores in 2020 dure to COVID. ELA achievement: 18% (2018), 20% (2019), 41% (2021). ELA Learning Gains: 30% (2018), 36% (2019), 71% (2021). ELA Learning Gains (Lowest 25%): 42% (2018), 43% (2019), 93% (2021). Math achievement: 22% (2018), 17% (2019), 62% (2021). Math Learning Gains: 24% (2018), 31% (2019), 88% (2021). Math Learning Gains (Lowest 25%): 13% (2018), 39% (2019), 92% (2021). Science achievement: 12% (2018), 27% (2019), 44% (2021).

Figure 5. Lakewood increased achievement (proficiency) in all subjects – ELA, math, and science. Lakewood also increased learning gains and learning gains for their lowest 25% in all subjects (learning gain data for science not provided by the state). All data publicly available from the Florida Department of Education.


Lakewood Elementary MATH Proficieny Improvements – 2018 to 2021 (FSA Grade Level) 
3rd Grade 4th Grade 5th Grade
2018 (“F” School) 25% 20% 18%
2021 (“A” School) 45% 63% 68%

Figure 6. Lakewood’s math proficiency improved in every grade level.

Lakewood Elementary READING Proficieny Improvements – 2018 to 2021 (FSA Grade Level) 
3rd Grade 4th Grade 5th Grade
2018 (“F” School) 23% 16% 9%
2021 (“A” School) 35% 35% 47%

Figure 7. Lakewood’s reading proficiency improved in every grade level.



A Historic Improvement – in the Middle of a Pandemic

Lakewood’s improvement didn’t happen overnight – it was a multi-year process, as all sustainable school improvement efforts must be. In our partnership, we had to rebuild virtually every system of the school besides the physical structures.

Lakewood was still an “F” school after one year of work – but the school rose from the lowest “F” in the state to a higher “F” – gaining 7 percentage points – and the community celebrated the range of movement in the school’s conditions and academics.

In the second year of partnership, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Lakewood was disappointed that state tests and letter grades were canceled. We project they would have made at least a “C” grade that year.

When Lakewood made the “A” after our third year of partnership, their improvement was historic for a number of reasons.

In 2015, Florida switched to the FSA statewide test. Since then, 202 schools have received an “F” grade.

Of those 202 “F” schools, only 12 traditional public schools – including Lakewood – have improved from an “F” to an “A” grade (see figure 8).

Lakewood made one of the largest gains ever by earning 40 more percentage points in a single year compared to their performance in the previous year.

Table listing the Florida schools that went from an “F” to an “A” since 2015 with their percent of total possible points change. School names: STEINHATCHEE SCHOOL (2018-19), GEORGE W. MUNROE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2017-18), PINECREST ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2015-21), LAKEWOOD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2019-21), SUNLAND PARK ACADEMY (2015-19), MERRIAM CHERRY STREET ELEMENTARY (2016-19), ARCOLA LAKE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2015-18), TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE ELEMENTARY (2015-19), HIGHLANDS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2015-21), POINCIANA PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2016-17), PALM VIEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2015-19), EARLINGTON HEIGHTS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL (2016-18). Percent point change 64, 44, 41, 40, 40, 39, 39, 38, 35, 32, 32, 31. Includes only traditional public schools, which are defined as all schools besides charter schools, ESE centers, alternative schools, and district virtual schools.

Figure 8. Only 12 of 202 schools in the state of Florida that received an “F” grade since 2015 have improved to an “A.” Lakewood was one of them.


Lakewood ranked #89 in the entire state of Florida out of 1646 traditional public elementary schools – in other words, among the top 6%. 

Another reason why Lakewood’s improvement is so incredible is because it was in the middle of a pandemic.

Lakewood was the only school in the entire state of Florida that was an “F” in 2019 and became an “A” in 2021, after a disrupted year of COVID shutdowns in 2020-21.

One other previously “F” school improved to an “A” in 2021 from a “D” in 2019, but all other schools that managed the F-to-A climb did so between 2015-2019, with no pandemic-related complications to deal with. Some have since slipped back down to a “C” or “D,” likely due to only focusing on learning gains and not proficiency.

Lakewood increased its learning rate in math (48%) and reading (7%) during COVID. However, the district decreased their learning rates, experiencing what many have called the “COVID slide.” See figure 9.

Lakewood also outperformed the district average overall in the 2020-21 school year. See figure 10.

Lakewood Elementary was the only school in the entire state of Florida that was an “F” in 2019 and became an “A” in 2021, after a disrupted year of COVID shutdowns in 2020-21. @MTothLSI via @Learn_Sci… Click To Tweet



Improving Math and Reading Performance 2019-20 to 2020-21

LSI’s partner, Lakewood (FL) Elementary School, increased its learning rate in math (48%) and reading (7%) while Pinellas County Schools district decreased their learning rates.

Figure 9. Lakewood increased its learning rate in math (48%) and reading (7%) while the district decreased their learning rates.




Improving Math and Reading Performance During Fall to Winter 2020-21

LSI’s partner, Lakewood (FL) Elementary School, performed 100% better in math and 142% better in reading than all other schools in the Pinellas County Schools district.

Post COVID results – improving math and reading performance during fall to winder 2020-21. District’s math learning rate was .46 and Lakewood’s was .93, so Lakewood did 100% better in math. District’s reading learning rate was .33 and Lakewood’s was .80, so Lakewood did 142% better in math.

Figure 10. Lakewood performed 100% better in math and 142% better in reading than all other schools in the district.


Pinellas County Schools Outperformed the State of Florida

English Language Arts (FSA)
Grades 3-5
% of students at level 3 or above

Mathematics (FSA and EOCs)
Grades 3-5
% of students at level 3 or above

2018 2019 2021 2018 2019 2021
Statewide 56% 57% 53% Statewide 61% 62% 52%
Pinellas 51% 55% 54% Pinellas 61% 62% 58%

Figure 11. As a district, Pinellas County Schools outperformed the state of Florida on the FSA for grades 3-5 in ELA and math. Source:


Conclusion: Improving Equity, Access, and Life Outcomes for Every Lakewood Student
Three students gather around a measuring tape on the floor, measuring a line and holding up a clipboard with the learning target and success criteria. Caption: Lakewood Elementary School students apply their learning and develop agency through rigorous academic tasks with real-life skill aspects.

Lakewood Elementary School students apply their learning and develop agency through rigorous academic tasks with real-life skill aspects.

Disproportionately, students from low-performing schools get caught in a cycle of remedial, lower-tracked classes as they move into middle and high school.

These lower-track classes are mostly comprised of Black and Brown students and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and instruction is often low-rigor, less engaging, and more focused on good behavior and menial skills – which perpetuates the achievement gap over time and denies students the research-proven benefits of exposure to challenging AP coursework (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006).

“Once students get tracked for remedial classes in middle school, it’s hard to get them out of that. It’s incredible to know we’re preventing our students at Lakewood from entering that remedial track. We’re setting them up for success before they leave our doors.”

– Natalie Araujo, behavior coach at Lakewood Elementary


With a stronger foundation in elementary school, Lakewood students are more likely to avoid the remedial lower tracks and experience success in middle school, high school, and beyond.

Increased graduation rates and educational attainment are linked to higher incomes and lower unemployment rates (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

Furthermore, students’ proficiency in core subjects impact future earnings as well – better math skills can increase earnings by $21,000 per year, and better reading and writing skills can increase earnings by $11,000 per year (Boser, 2020).

Education is the key to upward mobility.  Breaking the cycle of generational poverty was the ultimate vision I had for Lakewood’s students when we established our partnership – and for all students in the low-performing schools that LSI partners with.

Lakewood’s incredible story of improvement doesn’t have to be an outlier.

With the right supports and outside expertise, a motivated school leadership team and teaching staff, and visionary district leaders, any school can become a beacon of equity, agency, and rigor.

“We have kids whose older siblings never had the opportunity to take honors classes and their parents may not have gone to college. Now, so many of our students are able to get on the honors track as they enter middle school because of their own efforts and results on the statewide test. It’s so amazing. So many doors are opening for our students.”

– Bridget Harden, first-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary


“Throughout the pandemic, the entire Lakewood Elementary community remained focused on student achievement. I am so proud of the school’s historic improvement and am grateful to LSI for the coaching and systems they implemented that led to this extraordinary success. Principal Stephanie Woodford, administrators, faculty, support staff, students, and families all committed to achieving excellence and were essential components of this remarkable turnaround.

I am also proud that as a district, Pinellas outperformed the state. COVID-19 pushed us to reimagine many ways of work to ensure students did not lose a year of learning. We will continue to use what we’ve learned to accelerate growth and sustain learning gains.”

– Michael A. Grego, Ed.D., Superintendent, Pinellas County Schools 


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Boschma, J. & Brownstein, R. (2016). The concentration of poverty in American schools. The Atlantic.

Boser, U. (2020, August 4). Education and income: How learning leads to better salaries. The Learning Agency.

Dragoset, L., Thomas, J., Herrmann, M., Deke, J., James-Burdumy, S., Graczewski, C., Boyle, A., Upton, R., Tanenbaum, C., & Giffin, J. (2017). School improvement grants: Implementation and effectiveness (NCEE 2017-4013). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Fitzpatrick, C., Gartner, L., & LaForgia, M. (2015, August 14). Failure factories, part one. Tampa Bay Times.

Florida Department of Education (2018). Florida School Grade Archives. Note: LSI’s Applied Research center analyzed the Florida Department of Education’s official school letter grades to derive Lakewood’s rank. “Traditional public schools” are defined as all schools besides charter schools, ESE centers, alternative schools, and district virtual schools.

Kulinna, P.H. (2007-2008). Teachers’ attributions and strategies for student misbehavior. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 42(2), 21-30.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (2006). Tracking and ability grouping in middle level and high schools.

Ratcliffe, C. (2015, September). Child poverty and adult success. Urban Institute.

TNTP. (2018). The opportunity myth: What students can show us about how school is letting them down—and how to fix it.

Toth, M.D. & Sousa, D.A. (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom through academic teaming. Learning Sciences International.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021, April 21). Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, 2020.

U.S. Department of Education (2015). Approved evidence-based, whole-school reform models.

Varela, K.S., Peguero, A.A., Eason, J.M., Marchbanks, M.P. Blake, J. (2017). School strictness and education: Investigating racial and ethnic educational inequalities associated with being pushed out. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 4(2), 261–280.



About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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