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Middle school FCAT grades up

Pinellas outdid other Tampa Bay area districts. Countywide, 78 percent of schools earned A's and B's.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published June 15, 2006

Middle school principals across Pinellas County breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday when the state released school grades based on standardized test scores.

After years of lackluster performance in many cases, five middle schools improved a letter grade on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Two schools - Thurgood Marshall Fundamental in St. Petersburg and Fitzgerald Middle in Largo - jumped from a C to an A.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox credited teachers and principals for the improvement, which he said likely started before the children reached middle school.

"Here's another place where I think you can point to the progress we've made in recent years with elementary schools," Wilcox said. "Maybe we're starting to see some of the fruits of that."

Overall, Pinellas outperformed other Tampa Bay area districts on this year's FCAT. Countywide, 78 percent of the schools earned A's and B's, compared to 74 percent of Hillsborough schools. In Pasco, 70 percent of the schools got A's and B's.

The most encouraging news in Pinellas was at the middle school level. That's where the district ramped up its efforts, mirroring statewide reforms to counteract low scores as students approach high school.

Among the initiatives was the introduction of a program already in use in high schools that attempts to measure how well students are grasping reading and math standards.

Thurgood Marshall principal Joan Minnis said the district's insistence that all teachers participate in reading instruction made a huge difference at her school, along with the directive to individually assess student needs.

"We did not schedule our students," Minnis said. "Instead, we placed them in the appropriate classes to make sure they could get the strategies and reinforcement they needed. When it came time to take the FCAT, they were not playing catchup."

In at least one case, it took more than academic reform to raise a school's grade. Stephanie Adkinson, principal at Tyrone Middle in St. Petersburg, said her school was able to earn a B after two years of C's due in part to a discipline program that offers incentives for good behavior.

"This year, we identified students who are meeting behavior expectations as opposed to spinning our wheels on students who are not," Adkinson said.

Another bright spot, this one among Pinellas high schools, was Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, which moved from a D to a C. Principal Doc Allen said "a complete school restructuring" was responsible for the improvement.

"We have developed an accountability piece for all personnel from plant operators up to the principal and everybody in between," Allen said. "Our way of work is totally different from when I first arrived here three years ago."

Monthly brainstorming sessions have focused attention on students with the most critical needs, Allen said. And regularly scheduled task force meetings with teachers, union representatives and School Advisory Committee members have added additional perspectives.

But school staff went a step beyond all that, Allen said.

"We got in our cars and drove into the community," he said. "We went and knocked on doors. We asked parents, 'What is the problem? How can we help you?' "

Along with the good news on Wednesday, the state delivered some blows.

Oak Park, a school for middle and high school students with academic or discipline problems, got an F this year. Principal Tim Haley said the district is working with the state to change the school's classification to the nongraded status of the district's other alternative schools.

Meanwhile, 14 of the district's 82 elementary schools dropped a letter grade. It was the first time five of them - Perkins in St. Petersburg, San Jose in Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Largo Central - had ever received a grade lower than an A.

Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg and Belleair and South Ward elementaries in Clearwater all fell from A's to C's.

Wilcox attributed the overall drop in part to the difficulty of maintaining an A.

"People lose sight of the fact of how hard it is," he said.

Like many schools this year, Belleair and Azalea saw significant declines in fourth-grade reading scores. But far more devastating to Azalea, principal Sue Boyd said, was the school's inability to improve the scores of its lowest performing students.

"That's the one that shot us in the foot," Boyd said. "We've got to work really hard regardless of the children's disabilities and figure out how to reach them."

Twenty schools, all elementaries with a high percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, were jabbed by the federal government for failing to make "adequate yearly progress" for the fourth year in a row.

That means they could face sanctions such as an extended school day or school year, a decrease in authority at the school, or replacement of school staff.

At least one school, Skyview Elementary in Pinellas Park, has earned A's from the state for each of the past several years.

Wilcox said the district will look at reading and math coaches and different staffing models to help those schools assist their lowest performing students.

[Last modified June 15, 2006, 05:40:37]

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