TAMPA — Sherry Chao accomplished the seemingly impossible in vaulting to the top of her class at King High School. She amassed a grade point average of 8.68.
It required more than straight A's. Chao took a full load of advanced placement courses, which earned her extra points. And like a growing number of the 250 Hillsborough seniors with GPA's above 6.0, she picked up "extra" credits in her free time through classes offered online and at local colleges.
"The classes are just interesting, and sometimes you don't feel like it's work," said the 18-year-old, who took the online classes in addition to her rigorous International Baccalaureate schedule.
But to what end? Other Florida school districts, such as Pinellas and Pasco, have grading scales that top out at 5.0. And Florida universities routinely recalculate Hillsborough's astronomical scores, bringing them in line with those of other applicants.
Hillsborough school officials say they allow sky-high GPA's because it gives students extra incentive to take the hardest classes possible.
"When I was in high school, you would think of a 4.0 as being perfect," said David Steele, Hillsborough's general director for secondary education. "But a 4.0 only says you were perfect in your class, whereas the 8.0 tells us more about what classes you took."
Not that drive, or a true love of learning, hurts a college applicant these days. Ask Chao where she's going to college next year and she responds with a tiny giggle, "Harvard."
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Grades alone do not define the students at the very top of Hillsborough's graduating class. Their ranks include a body-builder, an Indian dancer, math league champions and newspaper editors, a state-qualifying swimmer.
Kids like these are few and far between. Only 2 percent of Hillsborough's seniors this spring are members of the 6.0-and-above club.
The decimals separating them speaks volumes about the county's priorities.
School officials want students to push themselves in college-level AP classes. So they designed a system that makes a B in an AP class worth more than an A in an honors course.
That philosophy mirrors what happens in the college admissions process.
Though it rescores Hillsborough transcripts, the University of Florida still awards extra credit for advanced work. An A in an AP class gets five points instead of the usual four. In an honors class, that A merits a half-point bump.
"To get into the University of Florida, you don't have to look like you are Superman or Superwoman, or fly," admissions director Zina Evans said. "Our advice to a student would be to challenge yourself, but also to take advantage of things that show what you're passionate about."
Grant Sizemore takes exactly that approach. The Durant High senior credits online courses for helping him gain an edge on his main class rank competitor, who has since become his girlfriend. But the online option also let the 18-year-old free up a period for an agriculture class each year, which allowed him to show livestock at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
"My GPA could have been seriously improved if I hadn't had to take those classes, but it was fun and definitely worth it," said Sizemore, who has locked in a 6.86 weighted average and Durant's top class slot. And he just received a $6,000 check for Jethro, the Black Angus he showed this year.
No one has taken passion for school farther than Sherry Chao and Ankit Gandhi, the only Hillsborough students to break into the 8.0 range this year.
It would be hard to know which classes made the difference between her 8.68 and his 8.36. They both took so many, piling on top of the normal school day online classes at the Florida Virtual School and still more at the University of South Florida.
"At one point, I was taking 11 classes or something," said Gandhi, 18, who also participated in school clubs, cultural dance and other extracurriculars. "At times, I developed an irregular sleeping pattern."
Their drive reflects values learned at home. Both describe their parents as immigrants who came here with very little.
"Success is not about intelligence," said Gandhi, now pursuing a six-year accelerated medical degree. "We're not geniuses. Well, I'm not at least. If you work hard at something, that will lead you to success."
"This really is an American dream you can achieve," Chao said. "You learn from an early age, especially when you come from certain backgrounds, that you don't have everything handed to you on a silver platter."
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There is a reason Pasco and Pinellas schools don't allow students to attain anything approaching an 8.0.
Both districts offer quality points for more rigorous classes on a maximum five-point scale. Pinellas rewards honors and AP equally. Pasco has extra weighting for AP, but limits class ranking to courses taken in a regular high school day.
"The fairness factor really was a catalyst for this," said Cathy Rapp, who supervises guidance services in Pasco. "Not all students, either because of geography or economic issues, could participate in those opportunities" to accelerate outside of school.
In Hillsborough, some students see how it could get out of hand.
Plant High's valedictorian, 18-year-old A.J. Betts, went online to take graduation requirements like health and personal fitness, freeing up time to take advantage of more of the AP offerings at school.
The extra classes helped boost his grade point average to 7.24, but that wasn't the only point. He and the salutatorian, John Colby, also took an independent study physics class that didn't count heavily for class rank.
They hear that AP is now considered the new honors, and honors the new regular.
"There's almost AP inflation, when everybody's taking so many," Colby said.