HOLIDAY — Anclote High School principal Monica Ilse has no illusions about her school's grade when the announcement comes in early December.
"It is going to be an F," Ilse said matter-of-factly during a recent campus tour. "We've accepted it. We're going to move on. Honestly, that old news."
Students, faculty and staff got the first inkling that the news would not be good for their year-old school back in the summer, with the release of various state and national test results. Among the signals:
• 7 percent of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams earned passing scores.
• 36 percent of students taking the FCAT reading exam scored at grade level or better.
• 34 percent of students in the lowest quartile made gains on the FCAT reading exam.
Ilse knew the school would have its struggles. Located in a high-poverty, high-crime area, Anclote High has 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Many of the children have family or social issues well beyond schooling that affect their performance.
None of the teachers assigned to lead AP courses had taught those before. Many students lacked school spirit, having been forced to attend Anclote through rezoning. The combination of those factors created a steep climb for the school.
So faculty members aren't sitting back and waiting for the official word that Anclote High will become Pasco County's first F-rated school. They're already at work to prevent a repeat.
"Schoolwide, we're all working together," math teacher Glenn Csontos said. "We have found some good strategies. The students are very aware we need to do well. Everyone seems more motivated this year than last."
Students said they see the change across the board.
Many teens are responding to the school's use of rewards and incentives, such as discounted admission to athletic events for students who do well, senior Megan Miles said.
"I think it motivates us as a school to do better," she said.
At the same time, teachers take more time to make sure the lessons stick, said Kasey Haggerty, another senior. "They make sure everybody understands it."
One key method the faculty has adopted is called the "gradual release" model of instruction, which also has gained traction at other Pasco County high schools. With it, teachers spend time explaining lessons and then have students practice the material in groups before moving to more individualized review.
Ilse said the effort requires some fine-tuning still, but already the strategy seems to be helping. Students working together to solve quadratic equations liked the concept.
"I prefer working in a group than by myself," sophomore Bernadette Powers said. "You can see what everyone else thinks and come together and find a solution."
With the initiative, "the teachers are more interactive with the kids," junior Andrew Pelno added.
Several other efforts are also under way.
The faculty created instructional focus calendars to keep teachers on pace with the curriculum. They began teaching a common type of note-taking to all students to help with organizing thoughts. Some teachers started offering after-school tutoring.
Teams of teachers organized into "professional learning communities" to share teaching strategies and ideas for working with specific students.
They also started working to infuse more complex thinking into their lessons.
"It's essential because so much of the FCAT is moderate- to high-level complexity," Ilse said, acknowledging that the annual state test drives much of the effort because it accounts for half of a high school's state grade.
Another key initiative involves the staff reviewing each student's grades, attendance and disciplinary record to see if anyone is at risk of falling behind, and then assigning extra help and attention to the students who need it.
Ilse keeps reams of data on charts posted throughout her office. One set she highlighted broke down students into groups by those who were on track for an on-time graduation with no problems, those who had trouble in one category and those with multiple areas of concern.
A key category for the principal: Hundreds of "silent players," the kids who attend regularly, don't cause trouble and yet are failing academically.
"The key is engagement," Ilse said. "We still have to look at that and find more resources."
More work remains.
Anclote leaders are looking into splitting each grade level into separate wings or buildings to keep their instruction streamlined. That would include the establishment of a freshman academy similar to one that has seen success at Mitchell High School.
They're planning to improve upon a mentoring program that pairs up students with other students or faculty, focusing the program more on academic needs and expectations. One discovery staff made was that kids retaking the FCAT didn't know some critical vocabulary words, such as "understate," which hurt their performance. The meetings would pay attention to areas such as that.
They're also examining the use of common assessments for teachers to use to help with focusing the instruction. And departments are working on goals of their own.
The success needs to come, Ilse said. But it can't be done all at once.
"They are taking on the challenge with a smile," she said. "But I also have to realize it's a lot of hard work."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.