LAND O'LAKES — Despite tougher testing standards, several Pasco County schools saw improvement in their grades released by the state on Thursday.
Four schools — Connerton, Shady Hills and Woodland elementaries and Imagine School of Land O'Lakes — raised their grades from C to A. As a group, two-thirds of the district's elementary, middle and charter schools received an A or B.
The district itself saw modest growth in performance, as well, inching closer to an A after losing that distinction a year ago.
But not everyone celebrated Thursday's results.
Gulf Highlands Elementary near Port Richey became the district's first F-rated elementary school, and second F school since the grading began. Last year, Anclote High School became the first in Pasco to get a failing mark.
Incomplete high school grading information showed Anclote High making significant strides away from its F, with its FCAT points rising almost 20 percent, which would be a solid C.
Three schools — Hudson, Lacoochee and Marlowe elementaries — also saw their grades sink to D's.
"This is a real setback for us," Gulf Highlands assistant principal Dawn Scilex said of her school's drop from a C to an F.
But she would not let the grade itself stand for Gulf Highlands.
"Do I feel an F defines us as a community or a school? Absolutely not," Scilex said.
Before noon Thursday she began fielding calls from staff members and parents asking about what comes next. She said the staff will look at its core instruction and dig deeper into its methods to determine what needs changing and what works.
"We're going to be very focused as we move into the new year," she said.
The word "focus" played a big role for the leaders of schools that found success during 2011-12.
Wesley Chapel Elementary, for instance, was one of just four Pasco schools to both earn an A and make adequate yearly progress under federal No Child Left Behind standards.
Principal John Abernathy credited the school's ability to direct teaching to individual student needs.
"It really boils down focused instruction on specific students," he said. "Gone are the days when we teach to a general group."
Teachers use data collected from testing and observation to determine what methods help students and which areas need more attention or different techniques, he said. Then they make mid-course adjustments, rather than waiting until it's too late to make a difference.
"No Child Left Behind was a wake-up call for schools," Abernathy said. "We have to make sure each one of the subcategories is making the needed gains. … Now the teachers are very aware of where the kids are."
Knowing student needs is critical, agreed Kimberly Poe, principal of Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills. Woodland earned an A for eight years before dropping to a C in 2009-10, the same year it became a Title I school.
That C "ignited us to do better, to do more with the new group of students we were seeing," Poe said. "We took a closer look at who our students were and focused the effort."
The school set new core beliefs, adopted a different system for individualized instruction and added programs to engage parents more. Teachers had more joint planning and review sessions, and the school celebrated successes throughout the year.
"All of those things combined helped us get back to where we need to be, that is an A school," Poe said.
That matters, she explained, because the school grade "is a reflection of our school, our community, our parents and our kids, what we do every day."
Schools that struggled in the past can find improvement with such direction, superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. She pointed to Anclote High School, which received an F last year, as an example.
Although high school grades are not complete, Anclote did get enough points on the FCAT portion to show vast improvement from a year ago.
Principal Monica Ilse attributed the growth to hard-working staff and faculty, involved parents and students who "really made an effort to focus on their learning."
The school did not sit back and wait for state officials to tell them something wasn't working. Staff members met last summer to discuss needs, methods and best instructional strategies, involving district and state experts along the way for advice.
Ilse was optimistic that Anclote is now headed in the right direction. But she wasn't resting on that.
"Our next step will be to look at pushing it up even further," she said.
Fiorentino said her district team will look for ways to improve as a system, helping the struggling schools as best it can.
"There's a lot of questions to be asked," she said.
At the same time, Fiorentino stressed that she did not want to lose sight of the strong performance of so many schools within the district.
"We are very proud of the accomplishments that many of our schools have made," she said. "I cannot say enough about the hard work of our staff. … They always rise to the occasion to do what is right for students."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.