When you're a B student for years and years, it's a little shocking to earn that first A.
That only begins to describe the rush of emotions Hernando school officials felt last month when their district finally broke into the top ranks of Florida schools. Surprised? Yes. Happy? Certainly. Worried? Most definitely.
Eighteen of 20 schools in Hernando earned an A or B grade from the Florida Department of Education, based on students' performance on state tests during the 2007-08 school year. Some schools, like Spring Hill Elementary, Parrott Middle, Nature Coast Technical High and Springstead High, posted spectacular gains that fueled the district's rise to A status under the state accountability system, said testing coordinator Linda Peirce.
But it was close. The district earned 528 points based on those schools' performance, edging into the top tier by just three points.
Now comes the hard part, as officials work not just to hang on to a grade, but to tackle persistent problems that prevent one in four Hernando students from graduating on time.
"We still have a great deal of work to do with the lowest-performing 25 percent (of students) and those subgroups," superintendent Wayne Alexander said recently, referring to low-income, special needs and minority groups.
It's not a new effort, and there are signs of success. Since 2001, the number of Hernando students in the lowest-achieving reading group has shrunk by 8 percent. In math, that number has been reduced by 12 percent.
Those improvements came only after district officials and teachers began to scrutinize test results and respond to areas of low performance, Peirce said.
"Five years of looking at data, reading coaches, just getting teachers to really look at the data," Peirce said. "We've really changed."
Under the continuous improvement model the district has embraced, teachers must check student learning on a daily basis and feed that data onto computers for analysis.
Everything from the spelling pop quiz to reading fluency gets recorded, and new "clicker" technology means students in some schools can even be graded on questions their teachers pose out loud. And new Aim High software allows teachers to find out if that algebra lesson made a difference — both for current and the previous year's students.
Teachers do a lot of the analytical work during planning periods, said Sonya Jackson, executive director of school services.
But data or time overload is a concern, Peirce acknowledged. "We try to give (data) to them in small pieces and meaningful pieces," she added.
There will be plenty of new school improvement initiatives to fit in during the 2008-09 year.
Even as teachers are adjusting to new reading materials adopted last year, they will need to manage a new, districtwide writing program. Several times each year, students from first grade through high school will be sitting down to write essays modeled after the writing section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
"They're using the same prompts; we're recording the data," Pierce said. "It's now become every teacher's responsibility."
District curriculum specialists are also introducing new pacing guides for every subject. While the guides include calendars that specify which topics classes should be studying every day, they're intended as suggestions rather than inflexible teaching scripts, Jackson said.
"(Teachers) might be a couple of weeks ahead or a couple of weeks behind; that's okay," she added.
Middle schools will be adopting new dropout-prevention programs, including after-school credit recovery sessions. Teachers will be encouraged to check students' performance early each quarter and intervene before they fall behind, Alexander said.
High schools will be employing some of those same strategies, and officials hope to use the same test analysis software to identify students' weaknesses. Last year, Springstead and Nature Coast Technical high schools used such programs effectively and saw big improvements, while Central High and Hernando High didn't, Peirce said.
There will also be a more aggressive push in reading, with intensive programs to help reverse the dismal fact that just 36 percent of county high schoolers are reading at the state's minimum standard.
The district will also be launching its Career Academies program in all four schools to help students forge stronger connections between their coursework and life plans.
It's a start, Alexander said. But he acknowledged that the district isn't yet ready to launch a full-scale reassessment of its middle and high school programs, and the ways in which those programs might be driving ninth-graders to drop out of school in frustration.
"It's a significant culture shock," he said, referring to the transition to high school. "And we lose a percentage of those kids."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.