BROOKSVILLE — After being branded last year as Hernando County's first F school, Eastside Elementary administrators predicted a big improvement this year.
But even they were surprised just how well the school performed.
Last week, the school learned that it not only had shed its F, escaping costly mandates that accompany two consecutive failing grades, but also had jumped to within points of earning a B.
"To go from an F to where we are today is absolutely unheard of," said principal Mary LeDoux.
Well, not quite. But close.
Across Florida, only nine other elementary schools jumped from an F to a C this year. Four elementary schools saw a bigger jump.
In terms of total points earned, the school outperformed every other traditional Hernando elementary school. Only Chocachatti Elementary, the district's perennial A-rated magnet school, scored better.
"We're just really, really excited," said LeDoux. "To see such positive results out of such hard work was really uplifting."
LeDoux was quick to credit all of the hard work during the past year by the students, staff and faculty. She also recognized the assistance and resources she received from the district and state.
She said the marked turnaround shows why the state needs to fund public education at a higher level.
"This is a real example of how well you can do when you get those supportive pieces," she said.
Fox Chapel Middle School, which earned a D grade the past two years, was the district's other big success story. The school bumped up to a C.
The improvements at the two schools mean the district will not be forced to add an hour to their school days, part of a state-mandated turnaround that would have cost the district about $1.2 million had the grades remained the same.
Results throughout the school district were mixed this year.
Overall, seven elementary, middle and K-8 schools dropped a letter grade for the 2013-14 school year, three went up and eight stayed the same. High school grades won't be released until later.
Hernando saw four schools earn D grades, including three elementary schools and one middle school. Gulf Coast Middle, a charter in its first year, also earned a D.
District officials say the drop in grades at several of the schools was a result of instruction and progress-monitoring tests not being effectively aligned to testing standards. They aim to fix that for the coming year.
Westside Elementary and Pine Grove Elementary, which both earned D's, are two of the schools of the greatest concern. Pine Grove was just a few points from being an F school. Westside had a point total worthy of an F, but didn't drop that low because of a state rule that prevents schools from dropping multiple grade levels from year to year.
Gina Michalicka, Westside's principal for 2013-14, said the school worked hard and hopefully laid a foundation for the coming year. She said administrators put in place a new teacher training plan and brought in a math resource teacher to address one of the school's biggest weaknesses.
"Change takes time," said Michalicka, who recently moved to the district office as supervisor of elementary programs. "Sometimes you don't see it as quickly as you'd like to. I'm confident that Westside will definitely be where they need to be next year."
Hernando superintendent Lori Romano said she was pleased with the progress made at the district's struggling schools, calling the successes at Eastside and Fox Chapel "remarkable."
She said she wants to use Eastside as a model for other low-performing schools.
"We need to learn from the good work that went on there," she said.
She said administrators from the district's new D schools are attending a summer leadership academy this week, where they have been examining data, solving problems and planning for the coming school year.
Romano didn't rule out administrative changes at the struggling schools.
"We're reviewing all the data right now, and we haven't made any decisions," she said.
School Board members had mixed reactions.
"We need improvement, and I don't think there is any doubt about that," said board member Matt Foreman. "I'd be lying if I said I was anything short of disappointed when it comes to the new D's that are there."
He said he has faith in the faculty and staff to turn the schools around.
Board member John Sweeney said he was pleased with the direction of a few of the schools, but "it appears my calls to be proactive and focus on the schools that were heading the wrong way were prescient."
"We need to start acting less like the fire brigade and more like Smokey the Bear," Sweeney said.
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.