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Pinellas grades shock, excite

The district earned 10 more A's and six fewer D's. Some schools made drastic leaps to officials' delight.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


Principal Robert Ammon was polite but firm: Someone must have made a mistake. How, he asked, could his Southern Oak Elementary School, branded a D last year, now be an A?

"No, we couldn't have!" said Ammon, whose students shot up in math to clinch an A. "Now, are you sure you got the right school in the right county? It's kind of a shock."

On Wednesday, the state handed out grades for its public schools, and Pinellas County schools got a report card that -- in most areas -- would make parents proud.

The district scored 29 A's, 10 more than last year. There were no F's, like last year, and fewer D schools -- five compared to 11. And then there were shockers like Southern Oak in Largo and Belleair Elementary, which jumped from D to A in a single year.

Palm Harbor University High School became the county's first grade-A high school, one of only nine statewide.

"That is unbelievable," said principal Alec Liem, whose school got a B in 1999. "Our goal was to become an A school."

This is the second year that the state has assigned letter grades to schools, based in part on standardized test results in reading, math and writing. What principals found this year is that just a handful of students can make the difference between a high grade and one that's demeaning.

On the downside, Dixie Hollins High School dropped to a D, the only high school with that grade. Thirteen maintained C's, Palm Harbor rose to an A and St. Petersburg High School improved to a B.

By one percentage point in reading, Dixie Hollins missed maintaining its C. When individual student scores arrive, Principal Jeffrey Haynes said he will scrutinize them to make sure the state did not make an error.

"That could have been one or two students that could have affected our scores," Haynes said, noting that his students made significant progress in writing and math. "We did make some gains, I can see that."

Superintendent Howard Hinesley cheered the shrinking number of D schools. Nine of the 11 schools slapped with D's in 1999 improved this year. Of the 117 schools that received grades, 70 stayed the same, 31 improved and 16 dropped a letter grade or two.

In a cursory study of the schools that rose and fell, Hinesley noticed that one subject area was usually the cause: reading. He said the district's curriculum staff will analyze the results to determine whether a new approach to reading instruction could help.

"We've got to continuously reinforce that it's important that those kids that are struggling the most, particularly in reading, that we can do everything to help them," Hinesley said.

Reading was the curse for Ridgecrest Elementary School in Largo, which dropped from an A to a C.

What happened at Ridgecrest -- a school for neighborhood students, with a magnet program for gifted students -- renewed Pinellas' criticism of the state's school accountability system.

Ridgecrest had the highest math score in the county and the second highest reading score. But the state standards for maintaining an A don't allow the reading scores to drop by more than 2 percentage points, and Ridgecrest's did. The most struggling readers at the school also have to show improvement, and they didn't.

"When you're at either extreme, I don't think it takes much change in the raw results to get a major change," said Ridgecrest principal Anne Stuckey. "The bottom line is the system of grading was an unequitable one."

State standards make it difficult for a school to maintain an A, so it isn't a surprise that some dropped to B's. But a surprising number of schools -- eight elementaries and three middles -- held on to top grades.

Len Kizner, principal of Bay Vista Fundamental School, had even warned his parents that it would be tough, maybe impossible, to stay on top this year.

"I am flabbergasted," Kizner said. "My first rection is just all smiles. I can just picture the expression on my teachers' faces."

What does it take in the classroom to get a good grade?

As it turns out, the schools that rocketed from D to A, fell from A to C, and improved from D to C were all doing the same things.

Teaching students to be responsible for their own learning through character education. Offering before- and after-school tutoring. Teaching parents how to teach effective study techniques. Incorporating math into all classes, even physical education where students calculate body mass. Regularly monitoring students' progress. Encouraging students to read for fun outside school. In some cases, using federal funds to reduce class sizes.

And working together, determined to prove the state wrong.

"I would hope that we would be an A but I am glad we're at least a C," said Sharon Jackson, principal of Gulfport Elementary School, which rose from a D to a C. "I just know how hard we've worked to get the kids up to par. I believed it would pay off, and it did."

At Belleair, which shot from a D to an A, a focus on math paid off. Last year, only 16 percent met the math criteria for an A, this year, 52 percent did. The state requires 50 percent to meet its standards.

Principal Marcia Gibbs, ecstatic at the grade, said Belleair created a math super stars program to challenge above-average students, gave teachers uninterrupted time for instruction and actively involved parents in monitoring their children's progress.

The school staff also carefully evaluated field trips and theme programs, like a Halloween parade, to see if they would help students academically. The Halloween parade, for example, was canceled.

"We did not like being a D," said Gibbs, who was calling every teacher to spread the news. "We knew that we could get better."

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