LACOOCHEE — Shirley Ray didn't mince words.
"The data is bad," Lacoochee Elementary's principal said recently as she surveyed her school's latest FCAT results.
Just a quarter of Lacoochee fourth-graders had scored at grade level or better on the state math exam. Only a third of them showed grade-level proficiency in reading.
The numbers weren't much better for the third or fifth grades. And what made this really hurt was that the school had won so much praise two years earlier for doing so well.
In 2009, more than 60 percent of all students were reading at grade level, according to the FCAT. Their math scores were close.
That success came despite Lacoochee's overwhelmingly poor, heavily Spanish-speaking population. It made the children, and the community, realize the truth behind the words that anyone can learn.
Now they're seeking to recapture whatever it was that worked.
"Lacoochee and the whole area is impoverished. We need the better school to help the kids," said Sharon Adams, whose daughter, Ashley, enters fifth grade in the fall. "There's got to be some reason the kids aren't succeeding as well as they were. That's got to be looked at."
Christina Foster, whose daughter, Kaylee, also starts fifth grade in August, suggested that a number of factors may have been at play. The school endured some tumultuous months last fall as superintendent Heather Fiorentino replaced former principal Karen Marler, who was accused of letting staff disputes fester and grow.
"Maybe it was because of all the drama that went on," Foster speculated.
Maybe it was the school's difficulty in filling key teaching posts, she added. Lacoochee is home to few teachers, and the school has sometimes struggled to find instructors willing to commute there.
Maybe children's and parents' attitudes toward school had an effect, Foster added.
"Maybe they'll get things straightened out next year," said Foster, who, like Adams, had not heard much out in the community of the declining scores.
That's certainly Fiorentino's expectation.
"We put new leadership in there in October," she said. "We are working with them to put fragmented pieces back together. This isn't the year you are going to see a change."
Without commenting on the past, Ray agreed that change takes time. She said she is working with the faculty and staff to push Lacoochee "back to where this school was."
The effort includes additional staff training in the most effective ways to teach children, with some emphasis on the special needs that come with low-income communities. Ray had to hire people into several key teaching slots, including math resource, literacy and guidance counselor.
The school also has focused its attention on implementing "Response to Intervention" strategies, in which teachers use student testing data and other classroom information to determine what works and which teaching methods need improvement or replacement.
That initiative started last year by targeting kindergarten reading techniques. By the end of the year, Ray said, more than 80 percent of the rising kindergarteners were ready for first-grade reading.
"This worked," Ray said. "The teachers are now excited about using what they learned to start next year."
Through scheduling, the teachers will get more time for regular coordinated planning. They'll have more classroom time for interventions with struggling students, while also providing enrichment opportunities for students who are doing well.
As they keep looking at the best ways to use data, the staff keeps in mind that FCAT results are just one piece of the puzzle. The teachers will continue to collect an increasing array of information on student performance in reading, math and other areas, with an eye toward dealing with each individual student's particular strengths and weaknesses .
"At this point, all I can do is make my plans," Ray said. "We have great plans for next year to make improvements. My teachers work hard. They don't just sit around. It's a wonderful school and a wonderful community."
It's one that has high hopes for the future. Leaders have worked tirelessly to bring development to the area, with the goal of shedding some of the poverty that has dogged the area for generations.
Having a successful school matters in the move ahead — especially because people know it can be had. Lacoochee had strong results just two years ago, and now longtime struggling Cox Elementary, which serves a similar demographic, is finding academic success, too.
"If Cox is doing well, what's the difference?" asked activist Judy Geiger. "If next year (Lacoochee) fails to come up again, then there's something wrong. . . . These kids out here, this is a place they need to go and they need to be able to come out of there with some benefit."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.