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Area schools make the grade
By ROBERT KING
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999
For a child, C grades mean you are meeting expectation
In a sense, that also describes how Hernando County's schools look under Gov. Jeb Bush's "A+
" Plan for Education. The first school report cards under the new accountability plan were released Thursday. Thirteen of the 16 public schools in Hernando County were given a C. The district's grade point average, on a scale of 4, was 2.125, slightly better than a C.
That means Hernando schools are at or above the state's minimum criteria -- not setting the world on fire but a safe distance from Bush's voucher system, which allows students in chronically failing schools to flee to private schools at taxpayer expense.
No Hernando schools were given an F. Only one, Moton Elementary in Brooksville, rated a D on the grading scale that's based largely on the results of student achievement tests.
Two others finished above average.
Suncoast Elementary merited the only A in Hernando County. And Fox Chapel Middle School -- in its second year of existence -- earned the only B.
The preponderance of C grades didn't come as a surprise to school district officials.
Previously released scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and Florida Writes! -- the two exams that have the most effect on the school grades -- have routinely put Hernando's schools at or around the state average.
"Our quest is to continue to improve, to get our schools from the minimum up to a higher performance," said Superintendent John Sanders. "I'm pleased that we have an A school and a B school. I'm not pleased that we have a D school."
Hernando's grades are similar to those earned by the schools in neighboring Sumter County.
Compared with Citrus County, Hernando's grades were slightly better at the elementary level, slightly worse at the middle schools and identical -- straight C's -- in the high schools.
Pasco County had stronger scores than Hernando at the middle school level but very similar scores at elementary and high schools.
Three out of four high schools, half the middle schools and nearly half the elementary schools graded out at the C level.
"It means we're an average school," said Alice Black, an assistant principal at Deltona Elementary, one of the pack of C schools.
"It's hard to accept a C when we know we should be doing better," Black said. "We'd like to do better."
Suncoast Elementary teacher Louise Harres said a lot of things went into her school's A grade. She said Suncoast's principal, Tizzy Schoelles, deserves credit for her leadership and for giving teachers the freedom to do their jobs.
But she also praised Suncoast's parents for valuing education. Aside from helping out with fundraisers, they push their children to get out of bed each morning and to be in school. In addition to test scores, small things such as attendance factor into determining which schools get A grades.
"It's not just a single person and a single method," Harres said. "I think we feel like a child who gets an A -- a sense of pride and a feeling that the hard work was worth it."
That Moton Elementary landed the county's lowest grade didn't come as a complete surprise.
Along with Deltona, Moton has the highest percentage of special education students in the county as far as elementary schools are concerned.
It has the highest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a factor tied directly to family income. And it has the most mobile student population in the county, which makes it difficult for students to get comfortable.
"They have a challenging group," Sanders said.
To that end, Sanders said, Moton's teachers and staff may be getting the most they can from the students they have. It's possible that Moton should be able to rise to a C, Sanders said. But he said he doesn't know if Moton will ever rise above a C.
Suncoast Elementary has fewer kids in the free lunch program and fewer kids with disabilities than most of the schools in the county.
Still, some schools have overcome the odds.
Pine Grove Elementary, for example, has a large number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches and frequently sees students arrive new to the school in midyear. But it managed a C and knocked on the door for a B.
The new grading system is better than some, in that the grades are based on scores from more than one achievement test. But it still isn't perfect, according to Sanders.
"It's still difficult, as far as I'm concerned, to measure the true effectiveness of a school," he said.
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