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Attention to reading pays off
By RICHARD DANIELSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2000
PALM HARBOR -- Last year, Palm Harbor University High School missed the top rank of Florida public high schools by the narrowest of margins.
Had a key reading score for Palm Harbor students risen by 2 percentage points instead of only 1, the school would have gotten a rare and coveted A from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test school-grading program.
This year, Palm Harbor administrators, teachers and students were determined not to fall short again, and they didn't. When the Florida Department of Education released its school grades Wednesday, Palm Harbor University earned its A, becoming the only high school in Pinellas County and one of only nine high schools in the state to receive the highest grade.
"It's very different in the high schools" because so few receive an A, principal Alec Liem said Thursday. By comparison, 471 elementary schools and 71 middle schools statewide received A's.
The grades are part of the FCAT grading system, which was pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush and passed by the Legislature to spur schools to do a better job. Students at F schools can receive vouchers to attend a private school at the public's expense, and last year schools that got A's or showed big improvement received funding bonuses.
"We had a goal last year, when we were a B school, and that was to be an A school," Liem said.
That wouldn't be easy, because the grades are awarded in part on how much a school's reading scores improve. Palm Harbor University, which has an International Baccalaureate program and a medical education magnet program, already attracts more than its share of motivated, high-achieving students.
Liem compared the school's challenge to a basketball player trying to make foul shots. It's a lot harder to improve your shooting percentage if you start out hitting 90 percent of your shots, he said.
To meet that challenge, the school incorporated reading skills into its entire curriculum, including math and science. That meant not only doing word problems, but looking for opportunities to have students analyze data, think critically and use a wide range of skills in those subjects.
"Everything doesn't have to be problems 1 through 20 at the end of the chapter," he said.
The school also made improvement a shared goal, with teachers explaining to students what it would mean to improve the school's reading score substantially. The school coined a slogan, "Go for the gold," and at one point students produced an FCAT-related show based on the TV hit, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
"It was a yearlong venture, but once we got within three weeks (of the test) we moved to special areas of encouragement," Liem said.
Teachers compiled and distributed a small booklet listing 16 steps to FCAT success. Liem said some of the advice was as basic as getting a good night's sleep and eating a proper breakfast before the test.
And while the school has no shortage of academically driven students in the IB and magnet programs, Liem said teachers tried to emphasize to all students "that each of their scores was important."
The focus paid off. The percentage of Palm Harbor University students whose reading scores were at Level 3 or above -- the key score that kept Palm Harbor from getting an A last year -- rose from 65 to 70 percent. By comparison, only 32 percent of students throughout Florida had reading scores at Level 3 or higher.
Palm Harbor's Level 3 math scores also rose from 82 to 87 percent, and the school's writing scores met the criteria for higher-performing schools.
Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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