TAMPA — The rumors started in December, but couldn't be confirmed. So Phillip Carr waited and waited, all through winter break.
On Wednesday it became official: Spoto High School in Riverview climbed from a D to an A in the state grading system.
"Already our students are talking about making this their legacy," said Carr, Spoto's principal.
Throughout Hillsborough County, high schools had reason to celebrate: Ninety-three percent received A's or B's, compared with the state's 78 percent.
The A's won't come as easily next year, as the state is enacting changes to hold schools to more stringent standards.
But principals said it was nonetheless important Wednesday to recognize their success.
"It's just confirmation of right steps being taken," said Brenda Grasso, principal of Steinbrenner High School in Lutz. "We're very excited."
For five of the schools, including Steinbrenner and Spoto, these A's were their first. Plant City rose from a B to an A. Chamberlain, now an A school, had a D two years ago. Brandon went from a C to a B to an A.
When students and staff at Brandon High learned the news, "it was like being at a football game," said principal Carl Green, who went on the intercom and told them, "We are an A school. And it's because of all of you!"
State grades, which can translate to extra funding and prestige, are based on a combination of standardized test scores and improvement among struggling students.
The complex calculations can produce surprising results.
Riverview fell from an A to a B, despite having one of the highest graduation rates in the district. There were seven schools that dropped from A to B, including King, whose International Baccalaureate program produces some of the district's most distinguished graduates.
"As we tell the children, A's and B's are both good grades," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who acknowledged that with 16 components to the formula, "it is very difficult to keep an A."
In fact, Plant and Newsome were the only traditional high schools to do so.
Elia said she was heartened, when visiting Spoto, to hear that students were already discussing how they'll keep their A.
It won't be easy — for anyone.
Changes in state policy mean performance in advanced placement and other accelerated courses will be counted more heavily — while participation will count less.
Higher passing scores for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, adopted last month, will take effect.
And the state will move to a federally approved method for calculating graduation rates to eliminate what critics consider loopholes that have padded rates for years.
Other rule changes will be considered by the state Board of Education this month.
Regardless of what lies ahead, the principals said they are proud of the steps they took that produced this year's results.
Several attributed their success to a more effective use of data to help teachers pinpoint the weaknesses of individual students.
They offered tutoring sessions on afternoons and Saturdays, with teachers sometimes volunteering their time.
Carr, at Spoto, said it was important to address the needs of a diverse student body — the high-achieving students who wanted to ace their AP exams, the middle-range students who needed help with focus and organization, and the students who needed remedial work.
While the A is just a letter, he believes it will go a long way in reassuring parents and boosting student confidence.
"One of the things we try to do for our students is to stress the importance of being focused when they come to school," he said. "I'm a firm believer that the culture of a school will dictate success."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]