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Schools get a C average from state

Three elementary schools scored a D. But officials say many factors were involved, not just academics.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999


INVERNESS -- If Citrus County's public schools were students, three of them would not be eager to show their report cards to their parents.

Three Citrus elementary schools earned a D grade on the state's new accountability report on student performance and school quality that was released Thursday. Homosassa and Hernando elementaries and Crystal River Primary each scored below the minimum criteria on standardized tests for reading, writing or math.

For Crystal River Primary, the problem was a lower-than-required reading score. At Hernando and Homosassa, the writing scores were not where they needed to be.

No Citrus schools earned failing grades, which happens when a school doesn't meet the minimum in all three subjects, and none earned an A. Three of the county's four middle schools earned B's with the rest of the district schools earning a C. Overall, the county's cumulative score, or grade point average, if you will, was 2.0.

"Am I really happy with these? No," said Superintendent Pete Kelly. "But I feel comfortable with it and I feel that we're going to get much better very soon."

Kelly said each school in the district will be required later this summer to provide to Assistant Superintendent David Hickey an accounting of what it intends to do to bring its grade up.

"We have a number of schools which are going to make tremendous strides in the coming year," Kelly said. "It will happen because they know exactly what they need to do now."

The grades are part of Gov. Jeb Bush's "A+" education plan approved by the Legislature. Under the plan, all schools in the state receive a grade of A to F, and students in failing schools will be able to seek vouchers to attend private schools. The voucher portion of the plan faces a legal challenge.

The school grades are based on student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) and Florida Writes! The state also considers other data about each school, including the number of children who receive free and reduced-price lunches, the out of school suspension rate, the number of student absences and the mobility rate of the school.

A grade of C denotes that a school has reading, writing or math scores at or above minimum criteria. To earn higher grades, schools must meet other criteria, including scores at or above a higher test score performance range and a minimum number of standard curriculum students taking the tests.

Check your school's statistics from the state Department of Education Web site.
Homosassa Elementary School principal Bob Brust said he wasn't expecting to see his school score a D, but he and his faculty knew they needed to work on student writing skills. They started on that process before the school year ended and plan to continue next school year.

Teacher training is a part of that process, and Brust said an educator from Hillsborough County who has helped other schools improve their writing achievement has been scheduled to visit Homosassa next year.

Brust said the school also intends to work on improving math scores, which were acceptable but not outstanding. As he pointed out, his school's reading scores were of B quality and math was a C or better. Only the writing score was a D.

"If I were giving a grade to my student based on that, I don't think I'd give them a D, but it's okay," he said. "The thing about this is that we now know the criteria."

Crystal River Primary School principal Bennye Milton could not be reached for comment on Thursday, and the school's assistant principal, Sandra Kennedy, did not return several phone calls to comment on the school's grade.

Hernando Elementary School principal Carol Mainor tried to put the scores into perspective on Thursday.

"Our Florida Writes! scores were low and that's the reason we scored a D," she said. "In writing, even though we're below the minimum standards, we did make improvement over last year, and that's what's critical."

Last year the school went from just 31 percent of students meeting the minimum writing criteria to 49 percent this year.

Mainor said her staff knew that writing was going to be their focus, and Hernando's teachers have been emphasizing writing. Now that the school has the test scores of individual students, educators are spending the summer analyzing them.

"Hernando won't stay a D next year. We have too many good teachers in this school," she said.

The grade "is not truly a reflection of what is happening in the school," Mainor said. "As long as we're moving forward I don't have a concern. . . . I'm just sorry that the grade gives such a misrepresentation."

For example, Hernando didn't do well on its attendance figures. But the numbers show attendance from 1997-98 and the school really worked on improving attendance last year.

Mainor said she feels districtwide that the scores don't accurately show how Citrus is focusing on improving student achievement. "It does not reflect the quality of learning going on in our Citrus County schools."

That is also how principal Cindy Staten feels even though her Inverness Middle School scored one of the district's rare B grades.

"We were pleased when we got our test scores," she said. "But some of those factors we don't have any control of and we were lucky. . . . But still, we have good students and teachers who have worked hard."

Staten said she would encourage parents to look at the grades as one single indicator of what a school does for students, not the whole picture.

And she said a good grade doesn't mean her school stops striving to pull student grades up to an even higher level. "We still need parent involvement as well," she said. "That's a big part of what makes you successful."

Brust agreed. While he said he expected his school could raise its grade up to a C next year without much trouble, "If we want to go beyond that, then we're going to need help from the parents." Several schools in the district had higher absentee rates than the state average, making it harder to earn higher grades. Kelly acknowledged that absenteeism is a problem in the district.

"If parents are interested in seeing us do better, then it is going to be up to the parents to do their part," Kelly said. "It's not just about what we can do. It's also about what parents and the community can do to help us with attendance and discipline."

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