NEW PORT RICHEY — Kara Smucker couldn't contain herself as she listened to the news on her 8 a.m. phone call.
Gulf Highlands Elementary, the school Smucker took over a year ago, had improved its state grade from an F to a C.
"It's just so exciting," Smucker said Wednesday morning, after elementary and middle school grades were released across the state. "I was jumping up and down in the front office when I found out."
The school, which serves a heavily low-income community, made the leap despite multiple changes to Florida's school grading, testing and accountability rules that had state education commissioner Gerard Robinson warning parents to brace for declining results.
"The state has been moving to higher academic standards, new assessments that measure students' progress toward meeting the standards, and higher achievement levels for subjects such as reading and math," Robinson wrote in a letter to parents. "These new standards, assessments, and achievement levels are being used to determine school grades this year."
FCAT writing scores came in so low that the State Board of Education felt compelled to lower the passing score for purposes of school grades. To further mitigate expected drastic declines, the State Board agreed to limit grade drops to a single letter whatever the actual score.
That move kept nine Pasco schools that earned A's in 2011 from dropping to C's. They were: Cotee River, Watergrass, West Zephyrhills, Richey and Shady Hills elementary schools, and Chasco, Crews Lake, Centennial and Bayonet Point middle schools.
The state also waived a rule that drops schools a grade if they don't see enough progress in their lowest performing students.
The end result was mixed for Pasco schools: While 38 schools maintained or improved their scores, 28 went down. Overall, Pasco schools received 22 A's, 17 B's, 21 C's and six D's, compared with 34 A's, 10 B's, 18 C's, three D's and one F a year ago. (That list doesn't include high school grades, which will be released in the fall.)
Chester Taylor Elementary, Gulf Middle, Fox Hollow Elementary and Calusa Elementary all dropped from C to D. Hudson and Lacoochee elementary schools remained D's. Four of the district's five charter schools received A's.
"Even though we had a year of transition and a lot of rigor added, our staffs' hard work in preparing for this is showing," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. "Knowing how much change has taken place … we're very pleased and proud."
She noted improvement at Marlowe Elementary, which raised its D to a C and also at Cox Elementary, which went from a C to a B.
The biggest point of pride remained Gulf Highlands, where the improvement left the county with no failing elementary or middle schools.
"This goes to show you, when you look at data, reflect, look at the best practices for your classrooms, there's a payoff for your students," Smucker said.
During the school year, the school restructured its schedules to give teachers more joint planning time, and then trained teachers in how to better assess and solve student academic needs. Through myriad efforts to improve the school, the teachers aimed to focus on lessons and not the FCAT, despite the clear pressure to get a better letter grade.
Teacher Tracey Gillies said the students in her summer class for struggling third-grade readers cheered and clapped when they learned of the school's C.
"We were always hopeful, but we wanted to see it in print," said Gillies, who added that she and her colleagues viewed the past year as a challenge to fix the school's woes.
Gulf Highlands students made significant gains on their FCAT performance, with about three-quarters of them improving in math and reading. The percentages of students scoring at or above grade level, though, remained below 50 percent in all tested subjects but writing.
Smucker acknowledged that the school still has a way to go in getting students proficient in the curriculum and standards. Teachers started working on increasing the rigor of their classroom assignments in the final weeks of the academic year, she said, and several have spent time over the summer preparing more complex and meaningful literacy lessons for the coming year.
"Kara has a way of finding each teacher where they are and helping them grow to the next level," Gillies said.
Smucker predicted an A grade for next year.
"You're going to be calling me next year at this time," she said, "and that's what we're going to be celebrating."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.