TOWN 'N COUNTRY — When Xiomara Espinal told her co-workers she went to Leto High, their eyes widened and their questions came.
"You go there?
"Are you scared?
"Do you have to carry a knife around to be okay?"
The queries puzzled Espinal, last year's student government vice president and one of 397 students to receive a diploma from the school earlier this month.
She can think of one incident during her four years at the W Sligh Avenue school, and that was because someone told her about it; she didn't witness it herself.
"People expect it to be bad, and it isn't bad at all," said Espinal, who plans to study elementary education at Hillsborough Community College for two years, then transfer to a larger university.
For years, students and administrators have tried to change the negative labels associated with Leto — "the gang school," "the low-performing school" — and trumpet the positive, untold stories.
They think the labels are undeserved and aren't sure where they come from.
The school is focusing its attention on expanding its list of the advanced placement offerings, said Victor Fernandez, Leto's new principal. "We have tutorial sessions Saturday mornings. We're working, and the teachers are working very hard."
Newsweek validated those efforts this month when Leto debuted in the national magazine's annual list of top high schools.
More than 1,500 schools across the country made the cut. Leto is one of 11 Hillsborough County public schools on the list, coming in at No. 1,207 — ahead of Freedom High in Tampa Palms, which by Florida's accountability system, is the better school.
"It lets people know there are good things going on at the school," said Dave Brown, Fernandez's predecessor.
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Gaining respect may not be easy for Leto. Since the state started doling out letter grades in 1998-99, Freedom has earned one A, four B's and one C. Leto has gotten six C's and five D's. It received that fifth one last week, and Fernandez was not pleased.
"We need to be thinking about ways to move from a D to a C," Fernandez said. "That's my goal. My goal is to really reach higher grade levels, and eventually we will."
Brown, who will open the new Strawberry Crest High in Dover, said he's not trying to make excuses for the grade slip. But the state grading system, which is based on results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, is just one snapshot of a school at one particular time, he said. It doesn't take into consideration the number of students who are moving into AP courses and doing college-level work.
It doesn't take into account Leto's unique Hispanic population, either. A large number of the students are new to America, unable to speak English and read below grade level, Brown said.
"With the state, it's feast or famine, pass or fail," he said.
School grades don't matter to Newsweek, which has released eight lists since 1998; Advanced Placement courses do.
Newsweek takes the total number of AP, International Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests given by a school and divides that by the number of graduating seniors. The formula gives a rough indication of the overall academic quality of the institution, what Newsweek refers to as the Challenge Index.
"These are all schools with lots of low-income students and great teachers who have found ways to get them involved in college-level courses," said Jay Mathews, the Washington Post education columnist who devised the admittedly simple formula.
In 2007, Hillsborough County launched EXCELerator Schools and piloted the initiative at Leto and three other struggling campuses.
The program, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds, emphasizes group work, beefs up students' note-taking skills and offers support in applying to universities. The goal is to increase graduation rates by 10 percent, decrease dropouts by the same amount and encourage students to take more rigorous classes.
Leto has not quite reached the first two goals. But there are signs the program is working.
The attendance rate was 92 percent in the school year that just ended — the highest ever.
Its AP Calculus program is second only to Plant High, one of the district's crown jewels and No. 80 on the Newsweek list.
The school is now home of one of the county's AP magnets.
In 2008, Leto gave 467 AP tests and had 351 graduating seniors — enough to put it on the Newsweek list.
Next school year, the school plans to offer everything from AP art history and American government to AP biology and Spanish literature — 17 AP classes in all, Fernandez said.
Leto reminds Mathews of Garfield High in East Los Angeles, which was also denounced as a gang school and undercut by low expectations. He chronicled that school's efforts in the book, Escalante, published in 1988. "A group of great teachers turned it around, and eventually it made this list," he said.
As for Leto, Mathews said, "the question is, as they change the culture, can they keep it up and get that exam-passing rate even higher?"
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Fernandez, who took the helm in April, believes the school can. In addition to steering more students toward AP courses, he plans to focus his energy on next year's freshman class. Ninth grade is the stage at which students tend to drop out of school.
He thinks he has a good shot at retaining every freshman. He was their principal last year at Pierce Middle, which feeds Leto.
He also plans to revive Leto's Parent-Teacher-Student Association, which is inactive, he said.
"It's just a matter of bringing parents in," Fernandez said. "One of my goals is to get them involved, to bring them into the school so they can see and feel for themselves that Leto is safe and as good a school as any for their kids."
Espinal, the recent grad, said Leto's emergence on the Newsweek list helps. "I hope that a lot of people look at it and say, 'Wow! Maybe I should send my student there.' "