Even with warnings of a gloomy outlook, Friday's release of school grades caught some Pasco County education leaders like a sucker punch, leaving them to ponder how differently instruction will look when classes resume in three weeks.
Four elementary schools — Pasco, Moon Lake, Gulf Highlands and New River — avoided F grades only because of the state's "safety net" preventing any school from dropping more than one grade. Lacoochee Elementary earned its third straight D, as projected, making its state turnaround a formal requirement. But so too did Hudson Elementary, despite expectations that it would receive a C.
Now Hudson faces a state-mandated turnaround, too. It already has new administrators because of retirement and transfers, but superintendent Kurt Browning said he won't create chaos by forcing Hudson to restaff as he did with Lacoochee.
Just two schools in the county — River Ridge Middle and Calusa Elementary — saw their grades improve, with 19 maintaining A grades despite higher state expectations and several changes to the grading formula.
"It's gut-wrenching, because you know people gave their all and worked hard every day" for the good of the students, said Lynn Pabst, principal of New River Elementary, which had one of the district's lowest performance point totals. "We fell short. We are going to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Pabst said she had explanations — not excuses — for some of the possible reasons her Wesley Chapel school dropped from a B to a C, with points for an F. Those included a high number of temporary teachers replacing those on maternity leave.
She said she already had begun to make adjustments for the coming year.
Teachers have been reassigned to different areas, to focus on their strengths and to build stronger instructional teams, Pabst said. Several educators are hard at work crafting a school improvement plan, she added, with a heavy focus on writing curriculum. Forty-five percent of the school's fourth-graders earned a passing score on the FCAT writing exam this past year.
She took heart, though, in knowing that the school had a positive culture, as demonstrated in a strong climate survey, as well as strengths to build upon, such as nearly half of its third-graders scoring in levels 4 and 5 on the reading FCAT test. Kindergarten and first-grade academic data also were "solid," she said.
"We are looking internally to make sure we don't have any more surprises," Pabst said.
Pasco Elementary principal Katie Lail put stock in her school's data points, as well.
"This data last year would have been a C," Lail said. "I said to the staff, 'I'm going to own our data.' Whatever the state wants to put as a grade, I'm not owning that. I'm just not. Because every year it's different."
She said the data reflected a need to improve writing instruction. Like New River and many other schools, Pasco suffered a drop in points when the state changed its passing score from 3.0 to 3.5.
"We didn't meet expectations," Lail said. "We had a lot of students that scored 3.0." The school is looking at "how do we bump those students from 3.0 to over 3.5. What is it we are missing?"
Another area the team is studying is how to better meet the needs of students still learning English, a growing population in the Dade City school.
Like New River, Pasco had high points. For instance, it saw its cohort of students who moved from third to fourth grade improve their math performance by 16 percent. It's in areas like those that the school aims to capitalize.
Lail said her teachers agreed to reflect on the data and problem solve, and it's happening daily in the school even during break.
Hudson Elementary's new principal, Tracy Graziaplene, said she looked at her school's D grade as an "exciting challenge."
"If we don't look ahead positively and accept the support for what it is, we aren't going to get the morale back up," Graziaplene said.
She planned to meet with a state accountability team this week and to send a team to the state's accountability summer academy next week. She expected to gain additional teacher coaches for the coming year and to focus on all the social and academic improvement opportunities for the school.
"I always look at coaching as a great thing. Your greatest athletes have coaches," she said. "If the support is there and the expertise, the more the merrier to help us. Tell us what we need to do."
Graziaplene praised the school's staff, and said she would do all she could to empower teachers to find success as a team. "Hopefully we can pull together."
Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said the district office aims to provide the needed training.
"This is our time to support . . . and not beat them over the head," she said.
Many teachers have voluntarily attended seminars in math and reading this summer. Writing instruction is under scrutiny, too, as many schools struggled to meet the increased standards.
And the assistance is not just for schools seen as low performing.
"An A school under the system needs help also," Larson said. "I don't want the A schools to be comfortable. Everybody is on a learning curve."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.