Principal Susan Duval's voice came over Springstead High School's public address system Friday morning with news she has been itching to give for years:
Springstead is officially an A school.
Cheers and applause erupted throughout the building.
Before this year, no Hernando County high school had ever earned an A grade from the state.
Now there are three.
"It's a tremendous way to kick off the break," Duval said. "I can't say enough about the staff. They're so dedicated and motivated."
Springstead and Nature Coast Technical High School both earned the state's highest mark for the first time for the 2011-12 school year, the Florida Department of Education reported Friday. Weeki Wachee High School, which opened in 2010 and hasn't had a graduating class, also earned an A earlier this year.
Weeki Wachee's score was based only on limited state assessments; it did not include criteria such as the graduation rate and postsecondary readiness, which typically are used in tabulating high school grades.
Hernando High School and Central High School maintained their B grades, which are up from past years.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt was extremely pleased with all of the results.
"I'm very, very excited about Springstead and Nature Coast getting an A, but I'm just as excited that there's been a tremendous turnaround at Central and Hernando," Blavatt said. "It's one thing to pull your grades up, which they have, but to sustain that, it takes a lot of work."
Blavatt spoke of an education dynasty. "I feel really confident that we're in place to always do that — to always be at that level," he said.
Hernando's improved high school grades mirror a statewide increase and come despite a new grading formula that many superintendents said would drive marks lower.
A total of 231 Florida high schools and combination high schools — often grades 6 through 12 or K-12 — earned A grades for the 2011-12 school year, jumping from 148 the previous year.
Many educators feared that a tougher graduation rate calculation set by the federal government and higher passing scores set by the State Board of Education for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test would mean lower school grades.
To ease the blow, the state put in place several buffers. Those included reducing the passing score on the FCAT writing test, suspending the penalty for poor gains among low performers and preventing any school from dropping more than one letter grade. The state also did not include science test results this year, because the scores for the biology end-of-course exam had not been set in time and the FCAT science exam was not given.
"This year's results reflect both higher standards and temporary safeguards the State Board of Education approved to help smooth the transition," interim education commissioner Pam Stewart said in a news release.
In the past, Springstead has earned enough points for an A but been docked a letter grade, for example, because it didn't have a sufficient number of students in its lowest quartile making gains.
Springstead has been a B school for the past four years, while Nature Coast has earned a B for the past two years. It was a C school the year before that.
Both Hernando High and Central were D schools as recently as the 2008-09 school year.
Nature Coast principal Toni-Ann Noyes said she was proud of her teachers, saying the A grade was a long time coming.
"I am extremely humbled to work with a group of faculty and staff members who put students first," Noyes said. "I'm very proud."
Florida began using factors beyond FCAT scores to grade high schools in 2009-10. Lawmakers responded to arguments that the schools' performance could be more accurately evaluated if based on a variety of measurements.
Added to the mix were participation and performance on Advanced Placement and other accelerated exams, the school's four- and five-year graduation rates, its at-risk student graduation rate and college readiness rates on one of several college entrance exams.
The reliance on extra data is what has pushed back the release of high school grades into the winter for the past couple of years, while elementary and middle schools have received their grades in the summer.
Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.