NORTH TAMPA — Principal Tommy Morrill had gotten a heads-up from district administrators that Chamberlain High stood a good chance of landing its first A.
He tried not to get his hopes up. The school on N Boulevard had a history of C's and D's on the state's report card. An A seemed like too much to dream of.
"I thought: 'You know what? I'll be happy with a B.' "
Morrill was at the doctor's office last week when district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe called. Chamberlain, she told him, was officially an A school.
Morrill was elated. The change, he said, is the result of new initiatives at the school as well as hard work on the part of students, parents and staffers.
"If kids are hungry, they're not going to want to learn. If it's a dirty school, kids aren't going to want to learn," he said. "It's all of us working hard. I want the best. I want to be an A school with the diverse kids we have."
About 65 percent of Chamberlain's students are minorities. The same percentage come from families that qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, according to state records.
Getting a top grade showcases the students' capabilities, Morrill said, and boosts morale — especially after a tough semester.
The Chamberlain community was shaken last fall after a student said she was raped in a school restroom by another student, who was arrested.
The assault dominated the news, said Morrill, who worried that outsiders would assume the worst about Chamberlain. He reached out to parents, explaining the school's safety measures.
Now, he hopes the A grade will help Chamberlain continue to move forward by putting the spotlight on students' achievements.
"It does help the community to know: Wow, they got an A, they worked very hard, the kids have worked hard," Morrill said. "It's a good school. It's a safe school."
The state released its grades for high schools on Jan. 4, six months after elementary and middle schools received their rankings. Chamberlain, which moved up from a C, was in good company in Hillsborough County, where high schools outperformed others statewide. Ninety-three percent of the high schools received A's or B's for their performance in 2010-11, above the state average of 78 percent.
The grades — which can bring extra funding to successful schools — are based on standardized test scores, graduation rates, participation in college-level classes and gains by struggling students.
A big part of Chamberlain's efforts involved getting students to think past high school.
Kay Myers, head of the guidance department, said the school has optional Saturday SAT preparation classes. Students take practice tests online during the week and meet with teachers and counselors one on one to evaluate their work. They get similar help for the ACT.
Better SAT or ACT scores often improve performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Myers said.
Also, student groups at Chamberlain promote college readiness, and teens are invited to wear college T-shirts every Tuesday. Teachers meet with students or steer them toward websites to plan for college or the workforce. Myers said they emphasize finding careers, not just jobs.
Students who risk not graduating are monitored regularly for progress and enrolled in online classes or extra classes after hours to make up credits.
All students have access to Advanced Placement classes, she said, and 350 follow a more intensive path as members of the Chamberlain Advanced Placement Scholars program.
Now all the students can see how it feels to have their work pay off, Myers said.
She recently met with a class and reminded the students that they were "part of history" as members of the first group to win an A for Chamberlain.
"Your work and your determination, the choices you've made, have positively influenced Chamberlain," she told them.
No one knows what the results will be next year. Students haven't taken the FCAT yet this school year, and the state is revising some of its criteria for grades.
Morrill said he wants another A, even with the changing standards.
"We're trying to do a little extra each year," he said. "If we can make an A this time and nobody expected us, we can do it again."
Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.