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Dixie Hollins High isn't ready to settle for a C, but it's a start

This is not about a victory. Nor is it a story of celebration or vindication. For in the world of education, there is nothing quite so incongruous as the gleeful acceptance of a merely satisfactory grade.

Instead, consider this an ongoing lesson in possibilities.

Report card after report card, graduating class after graduating class, Dixie Hollins High has ranked among the worst schools in Pinellas County. Even worse, it has consistently ranked near the bottom third of all high schools in Florida.

For seven consecutive years, Dixie had earned a D in the state's annual school accountability report. That is, until Wednesday morning.

Principal Dan Evans sent an email to teachers and staff around 10 a.m., informing them that, for the first time since 2003, Dixie Hollins had earned a C grade.

"When I became the principal, my major concern was to be excellent," said Evans, who is in his second year as principal. "I didn't come in here to say, 'How can we be a C school?' I didn't get the grade today and say "Woo hoo, we made it.'

"Now there's a little bit of that today because we have had seven Ds in a row. And that is unconscionable. So we have to be a C if only to then become a B. If only to have some belief in ourselves that we can be great."

It can be argued the grading of schools in Florida is an unwelcome distraction in the educational process. Is it really constructive to publicly shame a school for underperforming? Is it really the fault of administrators, teachers or even students when a disproportionate percentage of troubled schools draw from high poverty areas?

And aren't these grades the educational equivalent of a TV sound bite? Snappy and easy to understand, but not a completely accurate portrait of the situation?

As someone who has more at stake than most in this process, Evans accepts the value of the state's grading system. The formula may not be perfect, and the ramifications of a poor grade can be devastating on a reputation, but the sense of accountability is crucial.

Instead of running from it, Evans embraced it. He courted it. By using the grade as a motivator, he has attempted to change the attitude and expectations at Dixie.

The school has introduced three new magnet programs (film study, culinary and the IB-like Cambridge program) to attract high performing students, expanded after-school tutoring, and is more aggressive tracking graduation risks.

"What we're battling is expectations. It seeps into the kids, into the curriculum, the teachers, the coaches," said Evans, who is a Dixie grad. "What tends to happen at a school like that is nobody is looking around saying, 'We can be great.' They're really just hoping not to be lousy.

"My major role coming in a year ago was to set a different standard that says we expect to be excellent all of the time. We may not always be excellent, but we have to expect to be excellent. That was a message we needed."

They are still far from their goal. Dixie's overall score was the second-lowest among Pinellas' 17 high schools. On the other hand, the school's year-over-year improvement was the second-highest in the county. Ultimately, performance is what matters.

But sometimes, seeing the possibilities is the first step.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

Dixie Hollins High isn't ready to settle for a C, but it's a start 01/04/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 12:26am]
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