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Teaming up to tackle the FCAT

After slipping from a C to a D, Hernando High sharpens its focus on success with a broader level of accountability.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published February 26, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - The caller wasn't taking "no" for an answer.

In fact, the caller wasn't taking any answers at all.

The automated voice of principal Betty Harper had just one message for Hernando High School parents: It's all up to you now.

Today students across Florida are buckling down for the first of three days of no-holds-barred state testing in the core subjects of reading and mathematics. Every high schooler understands the stakes: fail the FCAT, and forget about graduation.

Sending out an automated phone message to all Hernando parents over the last few days - urging them to send their children to school well-rested, well-fed and bursting with Leopard pride - was just the latest move in the school's yearlong effort to boost student performance.

Administrators say it's not all about test scores.

They point to daunting educational gaps, such as the 16 percent of ninth-graders who failed at least one course last fall because of absences, and the large number of students who don't make it to senior year. While the freshman class numbers 462 students, there are only 251 seniors.

But make no mistake: The test score matters here.

Three years ago, Hernando High was a C school under the state's grading system. Under that formula, the bottom 25 percent of students must make steady improvements.

When that didn't happen in 2005 - a year in which Hernando posted its highest overall score ever - the school was downgraded to D status. And last year scores actually dropped.

"I think that the FCAT D was pretty bad for our morale," said Harper. "But if it goes to F, we'll have the Department of Education here."

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In response, Harper has reached deep into her bag of school-reform tricks. It's been a year of holding every single member of the school accountable for improvement.

Every class has begun with FCAT drills in recent months. Even arts and elective teachers must pitch in, she said.

Students who scored below the proficient level on the FCAT last year have been placed in remedial math or reading classes, and other students get enrichment. There's after-school tutoring, outreach to families, a study hall for athletes and a new program of advanced placement courses for top students.

"I think that has really helped to raise the bar," Harper said, referring to the college-level offerings. "We're trying to change the culture."

It's a culture that has always valued family, tradition, and a gritty brand of football. Academics, she said, "have not always been the primary focus for every stakeholder."

At a recent School Advisory Committee meeting, parents brainstormed about things they could do to help and approved $1,000 from their budget to offer a tasty continental breakfast on test days.

A guidance counselor said they could also help by sending their children to bed at a decent hour.

"I hear kids say over and over, 'I'm tired, I didn't sleep well the night before,' " she said.

One parent suggested it might not be such a bad idea if failing students just stayed home on FCAT days.

But vice principal Lorna Lowe said that wasn't an option. Schools get penalized if they don't test adequate numbers of students. And giving up on the kids who need help most isn't the right thing to do, even if it helps the school's numbers, Lowe said.

Some things are more important than test scores.

Such conversations tell Harper there's a positive change in the wind.

"It's been a big change, even in the four years I've been here," she said. "My vision has not been realized yet, but I think we're on the right track."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.