NEW PORT RICHEY — Andy Frelick made no excuses for Ridgewood High School as he addressed the three dozen state and county educators who huddled in a classroom off the school cafeteria.
The school has many positive traits, the second-year principal acknowledged. But it also received three straight D grades from the state, and it appears on the list of Florida's bottom 5 percent of schools. It's the only Pasco school on that list, in line to get a $1.5 million grant under a new federal program that is partly tied to the stimulus package.
There are reasons for the school's poor performance, Frelick said, reasons that a team has identified and hopes to fix. Soon.
For too long, he said, the school's philosophy was to provide all students the opportunity to learn, but it didn't make sure they took advantage. Ninth graders didn't get enough help making the transition from middle school, he said. Teachers often didn't offer engaging lessons.
Student results demonstrated the approach wasn't working.
Nearly a third of all Ridgewood students served some sort of suspension in each of the past three years. Retention rates hovered around 17 percent. While about 70 percent of students met grade-level expectations in math on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, fewer than half consistently did so in reading.
"We're trying to get a good root system in and grow from there," Frelick said at Thursday's gathering.
A PowerPoint presentation shining behind them, Frelick and assistant principal Kathy Leeper reviewed the school's data and other findings that sparked these proposals for turning Ridgewood around:
• A ninth-grade academy, aimed at getting freshmen better acclimated to the ins and outs of high school. Surveys revealed a common complaint that students felt unprepared for the demands. The academy also reduced the number of teachers instructing ninth graders to eight from 30.
• A daily critical-thinking period for all students. Held 25 minutes around lunch time, the class focuses on such matters as school rules for freshmen and senior project guidelines for seniors.
• Added paid planning and staff development time for all teachers, including instruction on how to include more reading and writing in all courses, and how to offer more hands-on learning experiences. Teachers also are eligible for performance pay.
• Positive incentives for students who perform well — things like stickers on student papers and even "RAM Bucks" that can buy prizes. "Too often we've used the hammer rather than the carrot," Frelick said.
Jobs on the line
After talking about the school's plans, goals and the barriers to achieving them, the team spanned across the campus to determine whether the initiatives are taking hold, and whether the plans are right for Ridgewood.
In small groups, the educators visited classrooms to assess, for instance, what types of questions teachers were asking and whether students were off-task, passive, active or solving problems. They pored over data. They interviewed students, teachers, parents and school leaders about the school's attempts to improve.
If all this doesn't work, jobs are on the line. Unsuccessful teachers and administrators could find themselves forced out.
The school has a different leadership team than it had two years ago. Faculty who weren't up to the extra work that the improvement effort requires got help finding positions in other schools.
But on this review day, that wasn't the focus.
No one was looking to penalize teachers who hadn't adopted all the initiatives immediately. The goal, Florida education department reading coordinator Pam Sudduth explained, was to "get a good, clear picture of actually what is happening."
"It is a lot of information we ask schools to look at and reflect on," said Julene Mohr, executive director of the state's regional accountability team. "Our process is to look at what they have already done and the progress that has been made."
Sudduth led a group interviewing four Ridgewood teachers. The teachers expressed concerns that the school changed direction too frequently over the past few years, often with little communication as to why.
"I just wish it was consistent," English teacher Sharlene Byrd said. "If there are strategies you want me to use and they do work, I don't want to change them … just to make a show."
Too often, history teacher Joe Raiti added, the changes come without any acknowledgement of what was effective.
Some teachers have been slow to warm to the effort, which forces them to face shortcomings. But assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly said acceptance has come as they learn how the school's test scores connect to the practices taking place at Ridgewood.
"It helps people to see what is happening," Reilly said.
Stephanie Carter, the school's science coach, said she believes the changes will make Ridgewood a better place.
"The school's overall mind-set and cultural shifts have been the biggest barriers," Carter said. "But a lot of teachers are excited about using new tools."
The lessons learned will be used to help other Pasco schools, too, Reilly said.
The accountability team's discussions and findings last week aren't the end of the road. Additional Ridgewood reviews are slated for January and April. Team members will offer regular monthly support, as well.
The state also is sending a team to Anclote High in Holiday later this fall. In its first year, Anclote had even lower scores on the FCAT than Ridgewood.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.