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Oak Grove earns an A, as many had expected
By JANET MARSHALL
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1999
They are as excited and satisfied as any educators would be that the Florida Department of Education, after reviewing test scores and other pertinent data, deemed the school one of the best in the state.
It's just that, with solid parental involvement, a dedicated faculty and top-notch test scores, no one's exactly surprised by the A rating.
"We were expecting an A or a B," said principal Pat Browne. "We had done some preliminary work to see if we were headed in the focus we should be. And we were right on track."
Oak Grove is one of four middle schools in Pinellas County to get an A from the state, a grade based mostly on test scores and to a lesser extent on discipline and attendance.
Mary Newman, whose son just finished sixth grade at Oak Grove, said devoted teachers deserve much of the credit for the excellent report card.
"I found the teachers were exceptionally caring and really tried to work with you," Newman said. "They seem like an A school to me."
Browne and others at Oak Grove attribute the school's success to the teachers and several other factors.
Oak Grove's teachers are constantly trying to sharpen their skills by sharing ideas and attending the latest training seminars, they said. The feeder elementary schools -- primarily Plumb, Frontier and Belcher -- prepare the children well. Plumb Elementary also received an A, while Frontier and Belcher got C's.
And at a time when some schools struggle to get parents involved, Oak Grove remains the kind of place where people line up three deep for a spaghetti dinner fundraiser.
"If we're going on a field trip and we need 10 parents to chaperone, we're going to have to do some sort of lottery to decide who we're going to take," said Bob Pecorelli, a sixth-grade science teacher. "When we need help, we get it."
That works both ways, Newman said. The transition from elementary to middle school can be difficult. But Newman said teachers bent over backward to help her son and other sixth-graders succeed.
"They help the children who aren't naturally organized get a little more organized," she said.
On all three tests the state uses to judge schools, Oak Grove students exceeded the state and district average. On the Florida Writes test, students averaged a 3.8 score, compared to the state average of 3.4, Browne said. On the math version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Oak Grove scored a 323, compared to 304 for the state. In reading, Oak Grove scored 322, while the state average was 302.
"We let the students know what's expected of them on the FCAT, what's expected of them on the Florida Writes, and try to put a system in place to help them achieve that," Browne said.
Part of the system is making sure students practice writing skills not just in English class, but in science and other academic subjects. Pecorelli, the science teacher, has his students keep a journal that allows him to keep tabs not just on their knowledge of the subject, but on their ability to express themselves in writing.
Oak Grove also has a peer tutoring system in place that pairs academically talented eighth-graders with students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
Generally well-behaved students also give Oak Grove an edge. Like every school, Oak Grove has its share of problems, assistant principal Tom Lechner said. But most problems aren't severe, and parents seem willing to work with the school to stop the bad behavior.
"We call these parents and they thank us and say, "We'll take care of this problem,' " Lechner said. "They don't blame the school. In fact, they want us to be tougher than a lot of times we are. They're real strong on our behalf."
The partnership between parents and teachers is critical to the school's success, said Newman, a member of the School Advisory Council.
"I honestly think that's probably the most important thing," Newman said. "Most students will go a lot farther when there's teachers and parents working together."
Oak Grove draws its 1,200 students mostly from middle-class neighborhoods in Largo and Clearwater. But as Browne said, the makeup of the student body "runs the gamut." About 20 percent of its students are minorities, and about 32 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty.
For everyone, Browne said, there are high expectations. And they won't let up.
"An A, that's great," Lechner said. "We'll celebrate a little bit and pat each other on the back, but everybody can improve. We definitely can, even though we're an A school."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
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