DADE CITY — Leila Mizer was "better than great" after Thursday's release of FCAT Writing scores.
Cox Elementary, the perennially struggling school that Mizer has led for 13 years, topped the performance of all other Pasco County elementary schools on the annual exam. The students' average score rose more than half a point, to 4.2 — that's above grade level — with just seven of the school's fourth-graders logging in below a 3.5 on the six-point scale.
The high-poverty, D-rated school tied with Richey Elementary — another school serving a predominantly low-income population — for the honor. Just four years ago, Richey had the second-worst performance on FCAT Writing among the county's elementary schools.
Now, each exceeded the state average score.
District-wide, scores showed little fluctuation from last year. They remained slightly below the state average, although many schools showed some improvement. Among all the fourth-, eighth- and tenth-graders taking the exam, 149 earned the highest score of 6.0.
Two charter middle schools — Dayspring Academy and Academy at the Farm — had all their students score 3.5 or better.
"What an exciting day," said Mizer, who announced in April she would leave Cox so a new leader could take the school to the next level of academic achievement.
"We are celebrating huge today," said Lee Anne Yerkey, Richey's assistant principal, who also offered congratulations to Cox for its strong results.
Both Mizer and Yerkey attributed their schools' performance to new ways of looking at writing.
Cox hired a writing consultant from Writers in Control to work with each fourth-grade teacher, each of whom ran a weekly writing camp for students. The coach came monthly to offer critiques on student writing and teacher methods, helping to identify ways to improve each.
"We also prepped all the fourth-grade teachers to teach writing," Mizer said. "We always had the one expert. … I thought, 'Let's expand our capacity.' "
Yerkey said Richey underwent a "total transformation" in its attention to writing since it bottomed out four years ago.
The school partnered with the Tampa Bay Writing Project and worked to get its teachers to believe they can teach writing well. It began writing groups and clubs, showed students the best examples of well-written literature educators could find, and promoted students' confidence in their skills.
"It is not a formula any more," Yerkey said. "It's a total process that we have done."
Mizer said she hoped that the first round of FCAT results give a hint of what's to come when the reading and math scores come later in May. Cox has been through restructuring under No Child Left Behind requirements, and is looking to make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal standard for the first time.
"The (data) we've collected on our own looks good," she said. "It looks like we're going to make gains. … I just hope they were able to perform on the test."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.