PINELLAS PARK - It looked like a party was going on Monday afternoon in Christy Curran's fourth-grade classroom.
A dozen children sported colorful hats made from construction paper. Purple handprints sprouted from the fronts with the letter "W" - signifying who, what, when, where and why - on each fingertip. Directives such as "Use active verbs" and "Don't forget the ending" were scrawled in black magic marker.
Pinned to each child's shoulder was a strip of yellow construction paper imprinted with a large "6," the score the children were hoping to receive the next day on a test for which they had spent weeks preparing.
The hats and the lapel strips were part of a last-minute press to get students at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary School ready for the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Rawlings, the district's writing demonstration school at 6505 68th St. N, posted scores in 2003 that were slightly below the district's overall scores, despite its focus on writing proficiency.
Since the school opened in 1992, nearly 70 percent of its teachers have completed a credentialing process monitored by master writing teachers to become writing demonstration teachers. They attend a school-based seminar every Tuesday afternoon to learn new methods for teaching writing.
The Janie Guilbault Publishing Center, named in honor of a former teacher who wanted children to develop a love for writing, annually accepts entries from about 200 students for the Rawlings Writer. The hands-on experience teaches them graphic design and production while it cultivates their writing and editing skills.
Yet Rawlings' 2003 writing scores were not particularly impressive. The school posted a mean score of 3.5 for expository writing and a 3.6 for narrative writing on a scale of 1 to 6, compared with district mean scores of 3.6 and 3.7.
Principal Shirley Lorenzo said other factors are at work. Of the 46 elementary schools with mean scores higher than Rawlings, 32 are north of Ulmerton Road, the east-west highway that divides north and south Pinellas.
Traditionally, north Pinellas schools have populations with less poverty, which often means higher test scores. In 2003, for example, 79 percent of the elementary schools in north Pinellas earned state grades of A. Only half of the elementary schools in south Pinellas earned A's.
Compared with other schools that have a 60 percent mobility rate and a free or reduced-price lunch eligibility rate of 63 percent, Rawlings holds its own, Lorenzo said.
Each year, the school's focus has been raising up the lowest-performing children, she said. In 2001, 42 percent of the students who took the writing test earned less than a 3.5, the level the state considers acceptable. By 2003, scores among the lowest-performing students had risen 9 percentage points.
Curran, the fourth-grade teacher, said teachers shift gears as FCAT approaches, but they don't allow the preparation to consume the students.
Curran admits that preparing children for the writing portion of the FCAT means teaching them a formula, but teachers let them know it's a formula. They explain when it's appropriate to use the formula and when to break away from it.
"If I only taught my kids how to write for an expository and narrative prompt, I would stifle their creativity," she said. "But I see the growth that comes out of this."
Lorenzo, the principal, said that even if the state did not insist students take the writing test, the school would still teach the style it dictates.
"I would want our children to know that there are times when it's important to sit down and create a piece of writing in a very short time," she said.