Times Staff Writer
Largo High School observed a moment of silence on Friday for the Connecticut school shooting victims. But after the somber reflection, principal Brad Finkbiner decided to deliver a different kind of message:
Speaking over the intercom, he let everyone know that Largo High had just been rated an A school for the first time.
"You could hear cheering down the hallways," Finkbiner said.
This Friday was a day for remembrance, a day to discover the world really didn't end, and the last day before winter break. But for many schools in Pinellas County and in Florida, it also was a time to celebrate.
New figures show that nine of Pinellas County's 16 high schools were rated A for the 2011-12 academic year, compared to just two the year before. Seven Pinellas high schools improved their letter grades and seven remained the same. The grades are preliminary since schools have the option to appeal.
Moving against the trend, Gibbs and Northeast high schools each dropped from a B to a C. The county had no D or F schools in either year.
At the same time, the number of Florida high schools earning A grades from the state rose by nearly a third in 2010-11, from 148 to 231, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart was quick to say it's not an exact comparison. That's because standards for grading schools have changed over the years and will continue to change in the future.
This year's changes were a mixed bag — there were some measures designed to prevent a big drop in scores, such as a decree that no school could lose more than one letter grade.
But in other respects, standards actually got tougher this year — the state increased passing scores for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and changed the graduation rate formula, among other measures.
Most agreed it will be tougher next year for high schools to get good grades, because scores from end-of-course biology and geometry exams will be factored in. And more changes loom after that. Asked when the standards would stop changing to allow for reliable year-to-year comparisons, Stewart said it would be years from now.
In spite of all the changes, Pinellas officials were elated.
"I'm extremely pleased," said Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego. He pointed out that the state's grading system, which used to rely exclusively on the FCAT, now includes factors such as graduation rates, industry certifications and readiness for college.
The state's reliance on the extra data is what has pushed back the release of high school grades into the winter, while elementary and middle schools receive their state grades in the summer.
"It really does paint a picture of how students are doing," Grego said of the new high school grading system.
Since the state began assigning school grades in 1999, Boca Ciega High has always been rated C or D. Last year it was a C.
But Thursday night, Boca Ciega principal Michael Vigue was at a school basketball game when Grego called with the good news: This time, Bogie had jumped all the way to A.
"We were pretty excited. . . . It's wonderful for our entire school community," Vigue said
Pinellas Park High School got C and D grades since 1999 — until the 2010-11 academic year, when it got its first B.
When principal John Johnston learned this week the school was getting its first A, he did not waste the opportunity to celebrate. He and four assistant principals fanned out and went to every single classroom in the school, to share the news in person.
They didn't stop there. The team congratulated the guidance counselors. And the plant operators. And the food staff workers.
Said Johnston: "It's a whole-school effort."
Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.