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F school knows it must do its homework

By Catherine E. Shoichet
Published July 6, 2007


Officials at Lennard High School, which received a failing grade from the state, have a new summer homework assignment: finding the problems that caused the low grade and figuring out how to fix them.

The rating, based on students' Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, is the first F for a Hillsborough County high school.

"It is a disappointment. It is not a shock, " said School Board member Candy Olson, whose district includes southwestern Hillsborough. "It is understandable, but it means we have a lot of work to do."

Lennard High School opened its doors to 586 students in grades nine to 11 in August. Eventually, the Ruskin school will house 2, 050.

More than 70 percent of the students who took the FCAT last year came from low-income families and qualified for discounted or free lunches. More than 22 percent were officially classified as English learners.

"We're going to turn the corner relatively soon. We knew what we were up against when we opened the school, " said Michael Grego, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of it centers around the ability to comprehend the English language."

On the FCAT grading scale used by state officials, Lennard was only five points away from a D rating. Many students started the year struggling in reading, writing and science, he said, and showed significant improvement. But the state's school grading system doesn't reflect that, he said.

"We see tremendous growth, " Grego said. "When you really look at individual students, you see that teachers at the school are making tremendous gains day by day with the students that they have."

School officials will hash out a detailed improvement plan and submit it to the state, he said. And the state will start monitoring the school more closely.

Already, plans are in the works for changes that officials hope will improve the school and bolster its rating, including a new magnet Advanced Placement program.

"We still have to look at the results, kid by kid, schoolwide. We have to look at any trends, maybe a particular area where we can identify where kids struggled, " Lennard principal Denny Oest said. "We'll adapt to that."

Earl Lennard, the school's namesake and a former county schools superintendent, said Oest has already put the school on the right track.

"The teachers at Lennard are absolutely top-notch, " he said. "Sometimes it just takes more than a year for a school to get under way and to move forward."

He noted that state education officials only recently started grading new schools.

"Probably it's not a good idea, " he said.

Building confidence in a new school after an F rating isn't easy, said Rachel Shelley, principal of Phoenix Academy in Sarasota.

After Phoenix Academy received an F in 2005, she said, school officials started monitoring student progress closely and worked hard to connect the school with the community. Now, state officials give the school a C rating.

"It was because of that failure here that first year that we were able to be successful the following year, " she said.

Lisa Marie Gritzinger, 16, a Lennard junior who plays the drums in the school band and softball, said the FCAT results bother her but won't stifle her school spirit.

"The teachers are amazing. They'll help you, no matter how many times they have to repeat themselves, " she said. "They understand that you need a little more time to understand the concept. They're not just going to give up."

The front of her T-shirt showed the school's mascot - a Lennard Longhorn - lifting weights.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 813 661-2454.

Fast Facts:

 

Comparing scores

Percent of students meeting high standards (FCAT Level 3 and above):

Lennard High School

Reading: 25

Math: 53

Writing: 73

Science: 27

Hillsborough County average

Reading: 62

Math: 69

Writing: 89

Science: 45

Source: Florida Department of Education