PORT RICHEY — Kara Smucker sought a fresh start for the new school year.
As students streamed in for the first day of classes at Gulf Highlands Elementary, they were greeted by staffers in powder blue shirts that read "Believe."
"We are showing that we believe in them," said Smucker, the principal, as she welcomed the kids. "We want to inspire them. We have a united front for their success."
Everyone wants a quick turnaround for the school, which received an F grade from the state for last school year.
"Teachers have been working all summer long," fourth-grade teacher Erin Alford said. "After the grade came out, we were in a panic."
Smucker took over in July, and her can-do attitude and concrete recommendations offered a reassuring first step. Even state Department of Education officials assigned to help the school have heaped praise on Smucker and the direction she's taking Gulf Highlands.
A full team from the DOE accountability division will spend two days at the school, beginning Monday, to conduct an instructional review. The goal is to provide ongoing support toward change that will stick.
"Our role is not to come in and say, 'You are doing this, this and this wrong and you need to fix it,' " said Fred Heid, school improvement bureau chief. "We want to focus on those things that can help the school have … substantive and sustainable improvement."
He noted the school had poor scores in the math and reading portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. He anticipated that much focus will be on helping teachers find ways to more effectively reach students.
It will require everyone to examine their performance in key areas such as presenting lessons, handling kids and writing tests. It won't necessarily be an easy conversation, Heid said.
But it's one the school is ready to embark upon.
Smucker began the conversations even before teachers officially came to work.
She hosted a session for teachers on creating a classroom environment conducive to learning and student participation. Twenty people came for the first one. Seven showed for the second.
During the hourlong interactive presentation, Smucker and new assistant principal Keri Allen demonstrated instructional games and discussed how a room would require different types of spaces, such as an open gathering area, to accommodate them.
They also put forth five expectations for each classroom: a reading-themed bulletin board, an area to celebrate students, seating designed for structured collaboration, a meeting area, and a display of student work.
The teachers left with plenty of ideas and validation of some past strategies. Afterward, they peppered Smucker with questions. Many were small but telling, such as whether they could move white boards and what type of gradebook they could use.
Smucker shook her head.
"People get frustrated about my leadership," she said. "I am more about having conversations. People say, 'Just tell me the answer.' I say, No. This is our school. … It's a collective effort in decisionmaking. I don't tell you what to do a lot."
She did have some expectations, though. She wants everyone to reflect on why they're at Gulf Highlands, and to determine what the disconnect might be between their reasons and their outcomes.
"We need to have the conversation about what is keeping us from getting there," Smucker said.
She wants a pervasive belief that all students can perform, and that it's up to teachers to find the ways to success. And she's made a few reading assignments aimed at getting that attitude in place.
Smucker also made some functional changes to the school, such as a revamped master schedule that puts a stronger focus on reading lessons, with plans to implement more.
Teachers welcomed the new direction.
"I think we have an excellent program," said kindergarten teacher Debi Wolfe, who has taught at Gulf Highlands since it opened six years ago. "Mrs. Smucker is really motivational. I think we're going to make great progress. … We really do believe we are going to have a great year and we're going to have fun while we do it."
Parents dropping off their children had high hopes, as well — whether they were bothered by the school's F grade or not.
"Honestly, the F grade didn't concern me," said Jessica Primo, a PTO mom with three kids at the school. "I am hoping that our children get better grades this year, but I really don't hold much in the FCAT. I put more in the teachers and how involved they are with the kids. And they are very involved."
Lisa Monaco, who registered her son Riley for kindergarten days before classes started, didn't know about the F, but had some concerns about the school's high level of poverty, and how it might affect learning. Her few visits to the campus gave her high hopes.
"We love it so far," Monaco said. "I see that people are very hands-on. … If the staff can show us they've got what it takes, I'm all for it."
They got a no-nonsense start.
With the first bell still fading, Smucker said it was time to get going. "Parents," she said, "make your goodbyes so our instruction can begin."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.