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County schools show marked improvement
By KENT FISCHER
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000
Madonna Wise had spent the past several days wondering what she might say to teachers, parents and reporters about her school's test scores. The preliminary data looked gloomy, and Wise, principal of West Zephyrhills Elementary School, had steeled herself for a disappointing state evaluation.
It never came. Instead, a phone call from her boss at the Pasco County School District's central office brought some incredible news: West Zephyrhills had earned an "A" grade from the state, the highest accolade under Florida's new system of grading schools by their test scores.
"I'm just really delighted for our teachers and our children," Wise said. "We were fairly confident that we wouldn't be a "D' school; however, we were shocked at the "A.' We didn't expect it."
There was similar unexpected good news across Pasco County on Wednesday as the state Department of Education released its second annual batch of school grades .
Five Pasco schools posted A's and another nine earned B's; only six reached those levels last year. Two schools received D's, down from five schools a year ago. No school earned an F.
Overall, 17 schools improved their grades, while only five saw a decline. "When you look across the board, a third of our schools increased their grades," said Susan Rine, the district administrator who oversees elementary schools. "That makes us ecstatic."
Schools that improved at least one letter grade are eligible for a cash reward from the state of $100 per student. Three of the district's A-rated schools are also Title I schools, meaning they serve so many poor students that their schools qualify for additional federal moneyaimed at boosting the achievement of poor children.
Principals at the three schools said the roughly $200,000 they received in Title I money was instrumental in helping them earn their A's. The schools used the money to hire more teachers to lower class sizes, improve reading instruction and to buy more computers, among other things.
"The money certainly gave us the resources to implement our improvement plan," said B.J. Smith, principal of Anclote Elementary, which improved from a C to an A this year. "Those resources make a difference."
Despite the good news, school officials cautioned parents and the public not to read too much into the state's school grades.
The new ranking system is only in its second year, and there is much debate among educators whether rising test scores mean children are learning more. Many teachers this year focused so intently on preparing their students for the test that they sacrificed large parts of their curriculum they knew wouldn't be on the exams.
"We still have the concern that with all the emphasis on test scores we're forgetting what's best, educationally, for children," Rine said.
But while many principals across Pasco were celebrating their improved grades, others were scratching their heads trying to figure out why their grades went down.
River Ridge Middle School was the only middle school to earn an A last year. This year, the school's test scores went up in every category, but its grade still dropped to a B. Principal Tammy Rabon thinks the school's attendance rates kept it from earning another A.
"I feel awful for the teachers and students who did an incredible job," Rabon said. "All of our scores went up, yet our grade went down."
In addition to meeting the state's test score requirements, A-rated schools also must have attendance rates that are better than the state average. The attendance data used in this year's analysis is from the 1998-99 school year, the most recent available to the state Department of Education.
Rabon said her school's attendance rate two years ago was a few percentage points worse than the state average.
"I think that's what did us in, but I'm not sure," Rabon said. "I'm perplexed."
If there was any hand wringing around the district Wednesday it was at the high schools, where two landed the county's only D grades, and nobody came in higher than a C.
The news for high schools actually wasn't as bad as many had feared. Just three days ago school officials were fearful that five of the district's eight high schools could end up with D's because of mediocre reading scores. Principals said they'll begin using the test score data immediately to chart long-term improvement efforts. Teachers will meet at River Ridge High School today to begin working on the school's improvement plan, which will focus mightily on reading.
"I don't think we as a school, and as a state, really practice reading in high school," Rabon said.
The district's two newest schools -- Marlowe Elementary and Wesley Chapel High -- did not receive grades this year because much of the grade calculation depends on how well scores improve from year to year.
Staff writer Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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