TAMPA — Seeing last year's back-to-school news conference at Graham Elementary School, which was celebrated by superintendent MaryEllen Elia for improving two letter grades, Russell Wallace had an idea.
He was the new principal at Bailey Elementary, a D school in Dover. Looking ahead optimistically, he had the staff reconfigure the media center to simulate the televised news conference Elia would hold this year.
"We're not a D school and we are not an F school," he told the staff. "That is not who we are. Every school grade is past tense."
As of this week's state results, Bailey is an A school. The jump is even more remarkable considering the state's safety net saved Bailey from an F last year.
"They say, 'Work smart, not hard,' " Wallace said Friday. "Well, we did both."
What happened at Bailey is part of a larger story. Across Florida, 116 schools rose two grades or more, up from 26 last year.
In the Tampa Bay area 22 fit this category, most in Hillsborough. Pinellas had five schools with two-grade bumps. Hernando County had one.
Bailey was one of three area schools to improve by three letters, from a D to an A. The others were Seminole Elementary and RCMA Wimauma Academy, both in Hillsborough.
Just two months ago, Belleair and Dunedin elementaries in Pinellas were said to be performing so poorly that the district placed them on a list of nine schools targeted for special attention. Both had F's in 2013. Superintendent Mike Grego demoted Dunedin's principal to assistant principal at another school.
But Dunedin's 2014 grade shot to a C, as did Belleair's.
There also was good news in Hillsborough for Woodmont Charter, one of three schools managed by the Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA. Woodmont rose from an F to a C, a welcome development as the Temple Terrace school might have lost its charter as a result of a second F.
"Our gains and our growth were phenomenal," said principal Steve Epstein. He and company administrators had tracked the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, which all pointed to a higher grade. But "just to see it was awesome," he said. "It took hard work."
Defending Woodmont's record when it had an F, school officials said students often enter the charter school after bad experiences at mainstream schools. Often they are a year or more behind grade level and have to catch up.
The administrators said the improvement comes largely from their system of individualized instruction.
That's also key in the district-run schools, officials said. "It goes to show that every student is an individual student," Elia said.
At Bailey, Wallace said the staff made extensive use of student progress data to pinpoint where each child needed help. "We had people who were in before 7 a.m. and a large number who would stay past 5 p.m. every day working their butts off to make a change." Nothing was taken for granted, even if a child was gifted or learning disabled.
Both principals said they had strong support from parents, despite last year's low grades.
"They stayed by our side," said Wallace, who can now look forward to rearranging the media center furniture for this year's news conference.
"We made the decision," Elia said. "We're going to Bailey."
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.