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District schools improve on FCAT

The number of A-grade schools in Hillsborough rises. Not one school falls to an F.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


TAMPA -- The release of long-awaited A+

Plan grades Wednesday revealed a largely sunny picture for Hillsborough schools, with the district's draw of A schools increasing from seven to 44 and the number of D schools slashed in half.

There were some surprising tumbles. Wilson Middle School, long a stalwart among the high-performing schools, dropped from an A to a C. Jefferson High School earned the unpleasant distinction of being the district's only high school to earn a D, falling from its C of last year.

But no school fell to an F and, in the main, district schools showed improvement or consistency. There were 62 schools that moved up a letter grade or more. Each of these schools, along with every school that earned an A, will be eligible to earn an extra $100 for each student from the state next school year.

Superintendent Earl Lennard said the prospect of reward money going to the schools prompted him to consider ways of funneling bonus money to teachers, coupled with loss of pay should scores turn downward. Punishment, he said, should be coupled with reward.

"If we have one, then why not the other?" he said.

Lennard said he had not decided whether to extend for another year his pledge to take a pay cut of 5 percent if a Hillsborough school earns an F.

Lennard joined other district officials in touting the schools' attention to the FCAT as the force behind the improved grades.

"We put more of an emphasis on the FCAT this year than in past years and we had a better feel for what the state was looking for," said John Hilderbrand, the director of assessment, accountability and evaluation.

Last year, the district earned 7 A's, 28 B's, 85 C's and 37 D's. This year, it pulled in 44 A's, 19 B's, 73 C's and 18 D's. Both this year and last, the first time grades were handed out, there were no F schools in Hillsborough County.

The grades are based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores in reading, writing and math. But other criteria, such as the percentage of eligible students tested, improvement or decline in reading of the lowest-performing students, student absences of more than 20 days, school suspensions and dropout rates, are also considered.

Some of Wednesday's biggest surprises came from D schools, five of which jumped to an A. And in the face of conventional wisdom, five of the 44 schools that earned A's were schools with high poverty populations, with more than 75 percent of the students on free or reduced-price lunch.

One such school was Ruskin Elementary in southern Hillsborough County, where large numbers of students are migrant and many speak English as a second language. It leapt from a D to A.

"I was expecting a C. That was my hope," said Mary Libroth, the principal. "Ruskin has a lot of risk factors. We have a very poor population. We have a lot of students with language problems. We never expected an A. We worked for it, but never expected it."

The vast majority of high-poverty schools, however, were graded D's and C's.

For Bloomingdale High School, earning the only A awarded to a Hillsborough high school was a crowning achievement in a year marked by painful episodes.

Shortly before Christmas, principal B.J. Stelter discovered she had several brain tumors. She took leave to undergo treatment and returned part-time two months later. Then in March, a Bloomingdale student and another teen who had been expelled from the school were arrested for vandalizing the school and causing $20,000 in damage.

"It was a bumpy road this year," Stelter said. "But that's what makes this grade such a wonderful one. Despite the obstacles, this validated what we already knew."

Earning an A required not only high scores on the reading, math and writing portions of the FCAT. It also required that schools improve scores of low-performing students and maintain scores of high-performing students.

For schools that earned A's last year, keeping the A proved difficult. Of the seven A schools last year, only two earned an A again: Alafia Elementary and Claywell Elementary schools.

At Wilson Middle School, the only middle school to earn an A last year, the dip to a C left its principal pained but not entirely surprised.

"I knew all along it would be difficult to keep an A," said Jean Hamilton. "The FCAT is a difficult test."

She said the school fell prey to the test's major flaw: comparing the 1999 eighth-grade class to the 2000 eighth-grade class. Class ability can vary from year to year, she said, and comparing different classes does not measure real improvement.

"This doesn't really judge a student's performance," she said.

In her school's case, she said, the eighth-grade class did very well on the test, but not as well as the class of the year before.

The principal at Jefferson High School, the only high school to earn a D this year, said he planned to contest the grade. Daniel Riveiro said he feared that the state mistakenly included some learning disabled students in the accounting.

"We're very optimistic that we won't keep the D," he said.

On the web

Florida's school performance grades are posted on the Department of Education Web site at www.firn.edu/doe/schoolgrades

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