They cheered at Gibbs High School in Pinellas and cried with joy at Middleton High School in Hillsborough.
High school grades around Tampa Bay and Florida rose dramatically this year, thanks partly to a new grading formula that includes graduation rates and schools' commitment to Advanced Placement and other college-level courses.
In Hillsborough the number of A's rose from two to eight, while in Pinellas seven out of 16 traditional high schools earned A's, up from zero last year. Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon announced at 7:15 a.m. that the school had not only shed its scarlet letter F, but fell just shy of a B.
The front office cheered and students screamed in the halls. "It was pandemonium," he said.
"Our kids can begin to believe in themselves," said Owen Young, principal at Middleton High. The school's move from D to C may finally push it off a state watch list of troubled schools.
But the joy may be short-lived as Florida begins to update a high school grading system that critics have described as outmoded.
Where the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test once drove the entire grading system for high schools, this year it counts for just 50 percent. "College readiness" is the new imperative, as measured by graduation rates as well as participation and success on the SAT, ACT, and AP or International Baccalaureate courses.
Those changes will only intensify, warned Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith.
High school students will soon have to pass tough math and science courses and FCAT exams. Over the next two years, the school grading formula will also put more weight on AP passage and less on participation.
And in 2012, the state will shift to a less forgiving, federal graduation rate calculation that doesn't exclude students who transfer into adult education, as Florida does now. The likely result: a big hit for the state's grad rate and the school grades that are linked to it.
"The school grades are reflective of incredible change going on with our high schools today," Smith said. "Expectations on our high schools ... will be ratcheted up."
On Tuesday, schools weren't going to stop celebrating to think that far ahead. Seventy-one percent of high schools across Florida earned A's or B's, up from 41 percent last year, according to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, D and F schools dropped from 32 to 14 percent.
In the Tampa Bay area, 41 out of 59 schools improved their grades, including charter schools. In Pasco County, several high schools increased by two letter grades. But one school — Anclote High — got the county's first F.
In Hernando County, four high schools maintained or improved grades, with D-rated Central and Hernando high schools jumping to B and C respectively.
Not a single Hillsborough school lost ground, and 16 of the district's 27 traditional high schools improved at least one letter grade. One charter school recently threatened with closure, Brooks Debartolo Collegiate, was one of four schools to jump from D to A.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the grading formula provides a "much better picture of the student achievement in our high schools."
At King High in Tampa, the school's International Baccalaureate program and AP courses clearly helped fuel the school's rise from a D to an A, said principal Carla Bruning.
But it wasn't easy; to qualify for an A grade under the new formula, schools must also improve graduation rates among students with a history of low performance on the FCAT, she said.
It will become harder for schools like King to maintain high grades as the emphasis shifts from participation to performance on such tests. But she said it feels better to fight for another A than to crawl up the mountain from a D.
"There's pressure at the bottom, and I've felt that, and there's pressure at the top," Bruning added. "I like the pressure up here much better."
In Pinellas, last year's high school grades included eight D's and contributed to a growing public perception that Pinellas schools were stuck in a rut. But this year's grades showed 13 of 16 schools improving, with 10 A and B schools, three C's and three D's.
At Tarpon Springs High, the school's electronic message board reflected the dramatic news — from a D to an A — as students applauded.
"I was kind of confused (about last year's D) because Tarpon's such a great school," said senior Leah Miller, who noted that teachers seemed a little more strict this year.
"We are so proud of the daily efforts of our high schools," Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen wrote in an e-mail to principals. "While we still have many improvements to make, today marks a defining moment in the improvement efforts of our schools and school system."
Times staff writers, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tony Marrero and Kameel Stanley and Times correspondent Joanna Blaz contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.