HOLIDAY — Sean Wood knows failure all too well.
He spent most of his school days in Maryland in the principal's office, not doing his work. He attended summer school every year. He dreaded report card day, felt like school was little more than his prison.
Wood moved to Florida in late 2010 and enrolled in Anclote High School, Pasco County's only F-rated school. He did not see failure in his new school.
"When I heard this was an F school, I didn't believe it," said Wood, 16, who credits the school with his own academic turnaround. "It's not what I saw."
And he is not alone.
Students, parents and educators interviewed at the school acknowledged Anclote's issues related to poor FCAT scores and the other grading criteria.
But far from feeling tainted when their brand-new school got its F, they were emboldened. The school that previously had no cohesive spirit — "They were Mitchell and Gulf kids," booster club activist Teresa Nelson said — began to pull together.
"It was a large part of school identity," geometry teacher Ryan Newell said. "This year, they call Anclote their school. I would say (the F) would be a morale booster. … We all just say, We can succeed.' "
Last year, Anclote High was like a new country, sophomore class president Jesse Galati said.
"We couldn't expect to rise up to an A," said Galati, 16. "We couldn't expect to rise up to be a world power."
The school had no seniors, so it had no graduation rate, hurting the school grade. The teachers didn't know all their students. Many of the Advanced Placement instructors were teaching those courses for the first time.
And the staff knew after seeing previous years' test scores that many students would be arriving with academic deficits.
"It was silly we were even graded in the first place," commercial arts teacher Kim Saavedra said. "We had no control over what we were given. There was no way for us to make up for the things the kids were lacking in the few short months we had them. … To me, the F doesn't mean anything."
That's not to say that it didn't create a negative impact.
"Just saying F puts a stigma on a school," said school advisory council member Jesse Jackson, who has one son at the school. "Saying F in front of a student puts a stigma on the student. Kids from other schools may pick on them."
Students have heard it.
"We hear, 'That's a terrible school. That's an F school,' " Galati said.
It's really offensive, said senior Jessica Fernandez, 17.
But kids have something bad to say about every school, she and others added. If that's the worst someone can come up with about Anclote, they said, that's not so bad.
"You can't judge us on that," said sophomore swim team captain Conner Caldwell, 15.
He praised the school's new technology, excellent teachers and hard-working students.
"It's a really good school," Fernandez said. "We are good."
Not everybody, of course. Like every other school, Wood said, Anclote has its share of students who sleep through class, mouth off, don't try.
But he said the school's teachers and administrators try to work past that. A student really has to try to fail, he said.
Students recognized they have a key role in helping the school succeed. But they did not feel pressured by teachers or administrators to perform on the FCAT, which started in early March, so the school can improve its rating.
Teachers push them to succeed, students said, because they care — something many said they rarely experienced before.
Sophomore Terrell Martin, 16, recounted how principal Monica Ilse came to his class to review writing techniques before the FCAT Writing exam. That was in addition to having writing prompts in all classes — not just language arts — to stress the importance of the craft.
The students got so enthused, he said, that several created a "6 Club, because we were determined to get a six no matter what."
"I've got teachers showing me things I never thought of trying," said junior Jaron Jammer, 18, who passed the FCAT retake after coming to the school. "I've come from F's to A's. I have changed dramatically because of the positive attitude and great teachers."
"They never put it like it's all on you," added junior Chris Sorrick, 17, a multisport athlete and Key Club president. "They took the pressure and they put it on their own shoulders, made sure they did the best they could with every possible technique to get you to pass."
Teachers said they knew coming to Anclote might be tough, with a student body that has a different set of academic and social needs than teens at more suburban schools. Early on they sensed that Anclote's first-year state grade would be poor. But that was not their concern.
"It probably forced us in a sense to prioritize what we needed to do," said history teacher Wynne Black, Anclote's first Teacher of the Year. "But as far as it being a morale buster, not at all. … I am not so concerned with the grade of the school. I am concerned with the grade of the students."
English department chairwoman Shannon Rodriguez said she has seen teachers come together, buying into the strategies suggested by district and state observers to make the curriculum relevant and get students to think more critically. They also now know more about their students.
"We can collaborate together" about the students, she said. "We didn't have that luxury last year."
Deirdre Mosichuk, a secretary in the school's student services office, said she sees the teachers' dedication daily in her own freshman son. He was not zoned to attend Anclote, but she made her son come to the school where she works as a punishment for behaving so poorly in eighth grade that he barely passed.
Now he makes A's and B's.
"I do not care if it is an F school," Mosichuk said, "because my son has excelled beyond anything I could have ever imagined at this school."
Rather than get swamped by the bad vibe, Jackson said, the school moved to quickly get beyond the F.
"It's caring," he said. "You might throw up a little label. But that's not what describes the school."
You don't have to convince Sean Wood of that.
The dedication of teachers who would not let him fail offered Wood the chance to excel, to avoid summer school for the first time in years. Anclote became his "getaway zone" from the yelling, the grounding, the negativity he used to feel at home in Maryland.
Coming to Anclote, he said, "is the best choice I ever made. It's amazing what a school can do for you."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.