After receiving D's from the state for four of the last five years, Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg has dropped to an F, based on scores released Thursday by the Florida Department of Education.
Nine other Pinellas high schools also received bad news as well, dropping one letter grade from last year. Dunedin High School received its first D. Countryside and Pinellas Park high schools slipped back to D's after four years of better grades. Only St. Petersburg Collegiate High, a charter school, earned an A.
"We're going to have to find out exactly what happened because this is very troubling," said superintendent Julie Janssen. "Where the high schools struggled most was with the lowest 25 percent of their students. They just couldn't seem to get them up enough this year."
Pinellas high schools may have fared poorly on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test because the district removed some reading coaches, said Barbara Thornton, an associate superintendent in charge of high schools.
The district will have to add reading coaches next year or make other improvements because the state is requiring more help for struggling schools.
The big challenge, Thornton said, will be developing critical thinking skills.
"We see that they can read," she said. "We're going to have to start looking at different ways to help them grapple with higher order thinking rather than just reading and answering questions on the test."
Pinellas Park High School principal John Johnston agreed that students' needs extend beyond simply learning to read better.
"We need to make sure that students are able to identify main ideas and predict outcomes," Johnston said. "We need to work on strategies that are directly related to the FCAT itself."
The drop in Pinellas high school scores reflected a statewide trend, which saw the number of A's decrease by nearly 50 percent and the number of D's increase from 70 to 116.
Overall, 106 high schools earned a lower grade because they failed to improve scores among the lowest-performing students, compared with 78 schools last year.
In Pinellas, 10 high schools lost a letter grade for that reason. Among them: East Lake and Palm Harbor University high schools, both of which would have earned A's, and Osceola, Seminole, and St. Petersburg high schools, which would have earned B's.
Gibbs High was the least successful in making gains among the lowest-performing 25 percent, which contributed to the school's F grade. While the school missed a D by only 1 point, Janssen said there is much work to be done there.
She recently moved former principal Antelia Campbell to Largo Middle School and brought in Kevin Gordon, a former assistant principal at Clearwater High.
Once again, the district and many of its schools failed to meet federal standards for adequate progress under the No Child Left Behind law. It requires continuous gains in minority, low-income and special-needs groups.
But the news wasn't all bad. Seven elementary schools — Bardmoor, Belleair, Lynch, Lealman Avenue, Pinellas Central, San Jose and Skyview — went from a C to an A. Woodlawn Elementary, where more than four out of five students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, improved from a D to a B.
"The students' two areas of need were math and writing," incoming Woodlawn principal Karen Russell said. "The teachers wrote their own mathematics curriculum this year with the help of district staff developers, and they really focused on the writing."
Next year, Russell said, students and staff at the school will look forward to receiving money from the state for improving their school grade.
"We're going to make sure the teachers are recognized for their effort and the children are rewarded for theirs," Russell said.
Times staff writer Ron Matus and researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.