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In Pinellas, Palm Harbor alone at top of report

The high school is the only one in the county to score above a C.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999


Check your school's statistics from the state Department of Education Web site.
PALM HARBOR -- Principal Alec Liem got a B on his school's report card Thursday, and he rejoiced like a teenager who knows he will not face the wrath of angry parents.

"Great! That's great!" Liem said over his mobile phone after being told Palm Harbor University High School's grade in the "School Accountability Report" released Thursday.

Each school's letter grade, from A to F, is based heavily on its students' performance on standardized tests: the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and Florida Writes.

Palm Harbor University was the lone high school in Pinellas County to poke its head above a sea of C's and one of only two high schools to get a B in a five-county area. There were no A's. The other B high school was Plant High in Tampa.

The grades are part of a system pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush and passed by the Legislature intended to encourage schools to do a better job. Students at F schools can receive vouchers to attend a private school at the public's expense.

A key to Palm Harbor's good showing was focusing heavily on the tests during the school year, Liem said.

"We've recognized that the state has set that as the standard by which schools will be measured," he said.

The school drilled the importance of the tests into its students. It told parents to make sure students got a good night's sleep before the tests.

Teachers even gave sample tests before it was time for the real ones. They analyzed the results and tutored students on the parts that were giving them trouble.

It didn't hurt that Palm Harbor High is the newest high school campus in Pinellas County and is using the latest equipment. The $30-million school opened in 1996.

And Liem acknowledged that the school's International Baccalaureate program for high-achieving students helped pull up the scores. The school is also home to a medical magnet program. Both programs pull motivated students from throughout the county.

But he said the school's lowest-achieving students were also key to the school's success. The faculty worked closely with them so they could do their best on the tests.

The school was so close to an A grade.

Of the seven criteria for making the grade -- including having better-than-average dropout, attendance and suspension rates -- the school met six.

The only one it missed was a "substantial improvement" in the percentage of kids who scored at level 3 and above on the reading portion of the FCAT between last year and this year. The state considers 2 percentage points "substantial," but Palm Harbor went from only 64 percent to 65 percent.

It beat every other high school in the county by more than 10 percentage points in that category.

Is the school gunning for an A next year?

"Absolutely," Liem said.

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