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Grades point to school district's division

Schools north of Ulmerton Road earned better marks under the state's new system than schools south of it, and to some, it is no surprise.

Click here to see a list of Pinellas schools' grades.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999

The grades earned by Pinellas public schools under the state's new accountability system illustrates the school district's historic divide: Ulmerton Road, running east-west from Seminole to Old Tampa Bay.

Fifteen of the 18 schools that earned A grades are in what is traditionally called North Pinellas, where the majority of the county's middle-class and affluent students live. To the south, where most poor students live, are all 11 elementary schools that earned D grades. The only south county schools to earn A grades are either magnet schools or fundamental schools.

The disparity disappears in the high schools when students from several middle schools come together: All but two of the 16 received C grades.

Palm Harbor University High was the only high school to rank higher, with a B. It missed an A grade by one percentage point in reading scores. (Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg received a grade of incomplete, because state officials believed not enough students took mandatory tests. District officials are challenging that ruling.)

The majority of Pinellas schools -- 58 percent -- earned C's, which for many parents connotes average or mediocre. In Pinellas, 43 of 81 elementary schools, 11 of 21 middle schools, and 14 of 16 high schools earned C's.

If the grades were assigned a numerical value on a four-point scale, like a student's grade point average, Pinellas would score a 2.38 -- a low C. But that doesn't make the county's schools average, said superintendent Howard Hinesley.

"I think that part of it is very misleading," he said. "It's heavily weighted on one test on one given day. But that's what we've got, and we've got to deal with it."

There was good news, too, for local officials. Of 67 school districts across the state, Pinellas earned the highest number of A grades.

Officials already knew no Pinellas schools would receive failing grades, which would have put them in danger of having to allow students to transfer to private schools with state-funded vouchers. They also anticipated that 11 schools would receive D grades.

That's because the state doles out F's and D's solely on the basis of test scores in reading, writing and mathematics, which local officials already had in hand. The criteria for earning an A or B, however, were expected to arrive from the state before the actual grades, in the form of a rule adopted by the State Board of Education.

Instead, Hinesley received both at the same time, by fax on Thursday morning.

To receive a B, each "subgroup" of students at a school also must meet state standards on reading, math and writing tests. The subgroups include poor students, Hispanic students and African-American students.

Schools that earn A grades also must record absentee, suspension and dropout rates below the state average.

For the C schools now striving to earn B's, the Ulmerton Road illustration becomes significant. Historically, it has been both a racial and economic divide in the district.

Since 1971, the road has been a guidepost in a federal court order that requires the district to bus students to desegregate schools. At this point, the order does not require schools north of Ulmerton Road to enroll any black students, and some are virtually all white.

South of Ulmerton, the percentage of black students at some schools is as high as 37 percent.

On both sides of the road, however, the state has the same expectation for the schools: Bring all your poor and minority students -- those who are traditionally low-scoring on local and national measures -- up to state standards on reading, writing and math tests.

That challenge is not nearly as difficult, for example, for Ozona Elementary in Palm Harbor, as it is for Tyrone Elementary in St. Petersburg.

At Ozona, 20 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Tyrone, the figure is 51 percent. Ozona received an A grade, Tyrone earned a C.

"I think it's hard for a lot of parents to understand sometimes that when you've got large numbers of economically disadvantaged kids, I think that does affect their overall learning curve," said James Lott, principal at Tyrone Elementary.

Still, he said, "We've got to get better, there's no doubt about that."

Districtwide, of the 11 elementary schools that received D grades in Pinellas, the average percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch is 68 percent. That figure is almost three times the average 24.6 percent at the 14 elementary schools that received A's.

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