DADE CITY — Principal Leila Mizer expected to hear that her school, Rodney B. Cox Elementary, had earned a C when state grades came out Tuesday.
Then the phone rang at 7 a.m. It was Peggy Jones, Pasco's director of research and evaluation.
"She said, 'I'm sorry, Leila. It's the same,' " Mizer recalled two hours later, still unable to shake her dismay at the school's second straight D grade and its sixth consecutive failure to make "adequate yearly progress" under federal guidelines. "It was a shock."
Mizer sent an e-mail to all her staff, letting them know she appreciated all their hard work and encouraging them not to feel bad, as improvement takes time. "Nothing comes up overnight except a toadstool, and it's good for nothing," she said.
Keeping spirits high proved no problem at nearby Pasco High, which earned a B grade just two years after being the county's only D-rated school. As teachers drifted in and out of the front office, assistant principal Robin Futch would simply announce, "B!", prompting whoops and high-fives.
"We weren't satisfied with the C," Futch said, referring to Pasco High's 2007 grade. "We went into this school year aiming for the B."
"Now the sky is the limit," added assistant principal Norm Brown, who had just sent out a recorded phone message about the grade to all the school's teachers and planned to head outside to put the news on the school marquee.
Each summer, schools anxiously await their report cards from the state. Much hinges upon them, from state recognition funding (37 Pasco schools qualify this year) to whether they must offer students tutoring or the option to leave.
The grades stem mostly from students' FCAT results, although lawmakers have begun changing the system for high schools beginning next year. Here's a brief synopsis of how Pasco schools scored for 2007-08:
• 13 schools saw their letter grades improve.
• 16 schools saw their letter grades decline.
• Seven schools, including charters, made adequate yearly progress, down from 12 last year. They were Richey, Lake Myrtle, Trinity, Trinity Oaks and Sand Pine elementary schools. Also, Dayspring Academy and Countryside Montessori passed this test.
• Two schools — Cox and Hudson Elementary — face restructuring under federal standards.
• 32 schools earned A's, 21 earned B's, 17 earned C's and 2 earned D's. No Pasco school ever has received an F.
• The district earned its first overall A grade after four straight B's.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino focused on the positives, saying the district had much to be proud about. At the same time, she acknowledged, more work remains ahead.
"This is something to build upon," Fiorentino said, noting that continued staff development will help the district's teachers continue to find better ways to reach students. "It's always about the teachers that you put in front of the classroom."
Sand Pine Elementary principal Ginny Yanson was quick to praise her teachers as critical to her school's ninth consecutive A grade.
"We have a fabulous staff. ... They are dedicated and they work hard," Yanson said. "We really work hard at looking where our weaknesses are and how to strengthen them. ... We just feel like good instruction is the key."
Others agreed that teaching the curriculum, and not test taking skills, has an impact. Kids are held to high standards, they said, and they respond positively.
"Kudos to the administration for taking the approach that they weren't going to cram down our throats FCAT all the time," social studies teacher Beverly Ledbetter said of her Pasco High leadership team. "We were allowed to teach, and FCAT was something they were going to take."
Educators at Cox took the same approach. And they discovered that students were making gains — just not enough to meet the state standards. So over the summer, teachers are getting trained in new instructional models that help them maintain kids' skills even as they move to new subjects, and to get kids to have more ownership in their achievement.
The school will continue to press for improved math performance while trying not to fall back in reading and writing. It has reinstituted its PTA and has hired four new teacher-coaches, too.
"I'm encouraged we are on the right track," Mizer said. "We are equal to the challenge."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.