NEW PORT RICHEY — Third-grader Nick Goffio curled up in a red leather chair, reading Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Jurassic Jackrabbits from Jupiter with special attention to expressive language.
All around him, other third-graders honed their skills with help from a reading specialist.
It was a push, Nick said, to get kids ready for the FCAT.
"The reason we're reading in here is because the main thing you have to pass is reading," he said. "Everyone in here needs help in reading."
Improving student performance on the annual state exam is critical for Gulf Highlands Elementary School, which underwent a complete overhaul this year after earning an F grade in 2011. Yet in the days leading up to the test, which begins Monday, the term "FCAT" was not in heavy rotation.
Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reminders weren't plastered all over the school walls and white boards. Teachers weren't hammering home that "this is what you need to know for the FCAT."
Rather, classes focused on lessons in a manner designed to reinforce what students should understand for the test, without sparking unneeded stress. After a year spent revising their instructional methods and improving lessons, the teachers and the students said they're ready.
"The whole year is preparing," fifth-grade teacher Heather Strom said, as she led her class through a reading passage.
"We just want them to learn and be successful," she said. "We're not preparing for a test. We're preparing for life."
That's not to say that students aren't well aware of the stakes.
They've heard all the talk about the school's F, and how their FCAT results will make or break the school's grade this year. They've seen their teachers head to meetings to talk about ways to teach better. They've watched advisers from the state visit the school repeatedly to offer advice on school improvement.
Nick admitted to being nervous as the FCAT loomed.
Principal Kara Smucker tried to alleviate any angst students might have by meeting with them individually to talk about goals and expectations.
"I want to build their confidence," Smucker said. "I tell them I believe in them. If they come in next week and they try their best, that's all I can ask of them."
She acknowledged that the state's increased passing score will make it harder to get out from under the F. But she said she's seen the entire school rise to the challenge of doing better academically, and the school's testing data indicates the children have made major gains.
"We've improved, and that is exciting," Smucker said.
Her positivity has rubbed off on the students.
"They believe in the students to succeed," fifth-grader Skylar Driscoll said. "They've been doing so much. It's been helpful. … I think they're going to do much better than last year."
Fifth-grader Dominic D'Auria agreed. He said the school is stressing learning, and not just the FCAT, although talk of the test can't be avoided. It's just the way things are, Dominic said. "I'm okay with it," he said, noting that his reading level has improved dramatically. "Last year, we were an F school. This year I think we're going to be a B or an A."
Fourth-grade teacher Tracey Gillies joined the Gulf Highlands staff this year. She said she's seen a dramatic turnaround since the start of classes in August.
Students now look at school as a place to learn, she said, and not just as a place to pass the day. Through many training sessions, teachers have discovered better ways to engage the children and pass on the curriculum.
"It's not all about the test. It's about them being better learners," Gillies said. "I'm really hoping and I really believe that they're all going to do their best, and I really believe there's going to be huge improvement."
That doesn't mean her nerves aren't fluttering a bit, too.
But the class has talked that through. They're focusing more on the excitement of the chance to do well than on the fear of doing poorly.
"They'll get to show what they've learned," Gillies said.
And that, Smucker said, is what Gulf Highlands is trying to be all about. "That's what we're here for, closing the gap, improving the data and building their confidence," she said. That's the expectation, she added, "whether we have this test or not."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.