BROOKSVILLE — Central High School principal Joe Clifford got on the public address system Tuesday morning with good news to share.
The Brooksville school, which has struggled in the past few years, shot from a D grade to a B in the state's accountability system for the 2009-2010 school year. That is the highest grade the school has earned since the grading system started in 1999.
"I'm particularly proud of the students and staff," Clifford told the Times before taking the microphone. "They see we're trying to change the culture of this school, and they've embraced that."
Hernando High principal Ken Pritz made a similar announcement at his school Tuesday morning.
"It's been five long years of enduring a D grade, but this year our efforts have finally paid off," Pritz told his fellow Leopards. The school, Pritz announced, had improved to a C.
The other two local high schools that received grades also had reason to celebrate Tuesday: Nature Coast Technical earned a B, improving from a C in 2008-2009. Springstead High maintained its B grade.
The grades are based largely on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. But this is the first year that the state factored other components into the high school grading formula. Among those new variables are graduation rates and participation and performance in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual enrollment courses.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said he was encouraged by results that clearly show the hard work of students and staff, but he tempered his praise with talk of goals for the current school year and beyond.
"I think with a little bit of concentration and tweaking, we'll continue to do better," Blavatt said. "I think all of our schools should be B's or A's."
The results came after months of intense effort, especially at Hernando and Central.
Those two schools split about $1.4 million in state grant dollars this year. Most of the money has been used to add staff to focus more attention on struggling students. Both schools have after-school tutoring programs and are focusing on improving student attendance.
Pritz called the work of his new attendance coach "pivotal." That staffer is constantly calling parents of low-performing students to make sure they make it to class.
"If they're not in school, they can't learn," Pritz said.
Pritz said he is especially proud that his school made so-called adequate yearly progress by meeting 100 percent of federal benchmarks. It was one of just 27 high schools in Florida to do so, he said. To achieve that, all of the school's subgroups — such as minorities, economically disadvantaged students and exceptional education students — must show gains.
The stakes are high for Central and Hernando. Their poor performance in recent years prompted the state to send officials here to help school administrators map out improvement plans and put them to work, and both schools face tougher sanctions if that improvement doesn't happen. Those sanctions could include replacing administrators and staffers, so the positive results released late Monday give the schools some much-needed breathing room.
"The students and staff at those schools have really buckled down and done some good work," Blavatt said.
The graduation rates at all four schools improved over the previous year's, rising from 77 percent to 79 percent at Central; from 70 to 75 percent at Hernando; from 86 to 90 percent at Nature Coast; and from 74 to 77 percent at Springstead.
But there is clearly more work to do at all four schools.
At Central, for example, 44 percent of students are scoring at or above grade level in reading. That figure is 43 percent at Hernando; 48 percent at Nature Coast; and 54 percent at Springstead.
Hernando High would have earned a B, but the school was penalized a letter grade because not enough of the lowest-performing students made gains in reading. Springstead would have earned an A but was penalized for the same reason.
Having three or four more students meet the standards would have made the difference, principal Susan Duval said.
"It's bittersweet," said Duval, who congratulated her students in a morning announcement Tuesday and made sure to note just how close the school was to the top grade. "But we're happy."
The schools' math scores are much better. At Central, 82 percent of students scored at or above grade level. That number at Hernando, Nature Coast, and Springstead was 74 percent, 78 percent and 77 percent, respectively.
The grades put a positive punctuation mark after the good news for Hernando schools. The district learned in August that it had earned an overall A grade, up from a B the previous year.
Now it's back to work. At Springstead, for example, staffers will make a particular effort to boost those reading scores and the graduation rate of at-risk students, Duval said.
"We've got two areas where we need to take a very close review of what we're doing and how we're doing it and see how we can improve," Duval said. "But we're always doing that. That doesn't change."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.