NEW PORT RICHEY — For the better part of a decade, Ridgewood High School has struggled to push all its students toward academic success.
The school has seen improvement since 2002 in its overall math results on the annual FCAT exam. But it also has seen drastic declines in the percentage of students meeting grade level standards in writing, while just one-third of students have made the mark in science and reading.
As a result, Ridgewood has earned a D grade from the state since 2007. And now, it's landed on Florida's list of the lowest 5 percent of all schools, the only one in Pasco County to receive such a dubious distinction.
That means a major overhaul for Ridgewood, thanks to recent and proposed changes to state and federal education laws. It has four options: closing the school, replacing the staff, reopening as a charter school or under private management, or implementing a different, research-based education model under new leadership.
Having just replaced Ridgewood's principal this year, superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff chose the fourth method to turn around the school. They're now working to obtain a $1.5 million, three-year federal grant to help move the school forward.
Assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly said she expects the effort at Ridgewood will affect what happens at other county high schools, too. For even though they didn't make the state's lowest performer list, Pasco has three other D-rated high schools — Gulf, Hudson and Wesley Chapel — with similar demographics that could be headed down the same path.
"We have challenges in several of our high schools," Reilly said. "What we learn from Ridgewood will be applicable at many of our other high schools."
Teachers lead the way
The grant application is not yet published, so the specific requirements are still but a guess. Anticipating a quick response period, district officials are already talking about what might be involved.
They're expecting many of the items to resemble the Race to the Top education accountability goals outlined by the Obama Administration. Those include such concepts as merit pay, increased teacher professional development and added career education options for students.
"We don't know how any of that is going to look," said United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb, who already has begun preliminary talks with the district about the many negotiable items that will likely arise during the transformation.
Webb equated what is about to happen at Ridgewood to the recent federally mandated reforms implemented at Cox and Hudson elementary schools, but "to the 10th degree. It's more rigorous."
Although the USEP has strongly opposed Pasco County's participation in the Race to the Top, Webb said she had fewer misgivings about working on the same concepts for Ridgewood. That's in part because the changes are not being foisted wholesale on every school, student and teacher.
"I view it as something that is doable," she said. "You have one school, one group of people, and you can see if it works over two or three years. … I'm hoping it's an opportunity."
To make it viable, though, Webb suggested that teachers need a strong voice, and those who don't want to be part of the time-consuming effort should be given the chance to go somewhere else. The ability to stay or go is happening as the school loses staff to Fivay High, which will take hundreds of Ridgewood students when it opens in August.
Principal Andy Frelick, who came to Ridgewood this past fall, agreed that classroom teachers must lead the initiative.
"The most successful changes we can make will come from the teachers themselves," Frelick said.
Driven by data
Frelick is reluctant to talk about any specifics the school might pursue through the grant. But he has a direction in mind.
He wants to see more hands-on learning, with fewer lectures. He hopes to have students engaged with more advanced levels of analysis and thought. He wants to integrate students from some special needs and remedial classes in with the general student body. And he wants to review all teaching programs in order to elevate the most successful ones and dump the least useful ones.
Data — about attendance, grades, test results and more — will drive the decisions.
"The data don't lie," Frelick said.
That's a lesson he and key staffers have learned through Response to Intervention training, which uses verifiable and quantifiable information to determine when teaching methods need changing in order to better meet student academic needs. The team will get two more training sessions before the end of the year.
With the information they've already collected, the administrators and staff have begun poring over student information looking for ways to better serve students.
The effort has included the hiring of a teacher who works to make sure students who struggle with attendance or grades find alternatives that keep them on track toward graduation.
The school has joined a district pilot program for students to take online courses to make up missing credits. Frelick is looking into ways to assess incoming ninth-graders to make sure they are prepared to succeed in high school, with a focus on math skills. This might lead to an intense summer school for some teens.
Ridgewood also has clamped down on tardiness, hoping to keep more students in class rather than letting them linger in the hallways and miss instruction.
Going forward, Frelick said, part of the school's improvement plan will include focusing on teacher lessons to ensure students are getting the appropriate level of critical thinking. It also will spend time looking at ways to reach a student body that has significantly more poverty than it did just a few years ago: 60 percent of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch, up from 40 percent in 2003.
Much of the federal grant likely will go toward training and staff development, Frelick said. That will take some time.
To provide it, Reilly said, the district will try to negotiate extra pay for extra teacher hours similar to the deal it made with Cox and Hudson elementary schools. Frelick said he is asking to have school begin at 8:40 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. for next year, so teachers can do that training in the morning rather than at the end of the day.
Much of the hard work still lies ahead. It's a huge task, Frelick acknowledged. "But we're up to it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.