At Miami Northwestern Senior High, for years slapped with the label of a failing inner-city school, the party was on Wednesday: The report card finally said "A."
You had kids in classrooms screaming and crying, said Principal Wallace Aristide. They were thanking me all day, but I was like you guys did all the work.
The schools four-year climb from F to an A was cemented Wednesday with the states release of high school grades for the 2012-13 school year. The results were part of a strong showing for Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which bested state averages in a year when a record number of schools earned top grades.
Dillard, Deerfield Beach and Hialeah Miami Lakes senior highs, schools that spent the 2000s as perennial D and F schools, also celebrated their first As. Other hard-scrabble schools maintained their As or Bs, distancing themselves from the poor grades of the past.
But even as schools reveled Wednesday, there was reason to mute the cheers.
So many Florida schools received As and Bs this year too many that the results triggered a rule in state education policy that requires the grading scale to toughen. Schools will have to work even harder to keep their scores this year.
"Well celebrate for five minutes, relish this and be under the shadow of success. But then well step out of it because the bar will be dramatically moved," Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
For Miami-Dade, the state-issued report card was one for the honor roll, with 86 percent of the districts high schools receiving As and Bs. In Broward, the results were even better, with 91 percent earning top grades.
The statewide average for As and Bs was 78 percent.
Meanwhile, there were no F schools once again in South Florida. And just one traditional high school, Miami Central, received a D this year. Carvalho said the district is appealing the grade, which he said dropped from a C due to a technicality in the states grading formula.
The high scores were perhaps most pronounced at inner city schools like Dillard High, where the first-ever A grade was celebrated with a press conference that felt more like a pep rally. Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie was flanked by Dillard cheerleaders in their purple, black and silver uniforms. At various points, the crowd erupted in cheers, whistles, and triumphant fist pumps.
Weve made huge investments in this school, Runcie said. It has a tremendous legacy in Broward County. It means a lot to the community.
Dillard opened in 1907 before the creation of Broward County and it was Fort Lauderdales first black school. But though school administrators boast of Dillards rich and proud heritage, the school has at times struggled under Floridas letter-grade system.
Dillard received an F grade in 2002, and has received numerous D grades over the years.
Dillards grades have been steadily improving, however, rising to a B two years ago. This years jump from a C to an A was the latest evidence of Dillards positive momentum.
School district administrators, even before Dillard earned its A, were confident enough in Principal Casandra Robinson that they chose her school as a linchpin in a dramatic overhaul of Fort Lauderdales inner-city schools.
Broward earlier this year closed the struggling Arthur Ashe Middle School and expanded Dillard from a traditional high school to a 6-12 grade format. With Dillard absorbing many of the former Ashe students, Robinsons school faced additional pressures and challenges.
Among them: convincing parents that their middle schoolers would be comfortable at a school filled with older teens.
On Wednesday, a smiling Robinson was confident that Dillard would continue to attract more students. She proudly warned parents that the deadline for Dillards magnet programs is fast approaching.
Seats are limited, so apply today, she said.
The superintendent chimed in, Bring your A game.
At Miami Northwestern, principal Aristide said hes been taking calls from alumni, parents and the community ever since the inaugural A grade became official Wednesday morning.
So many people are so happy for the school, the students, the community, he said. Normally this community takes a whole lot of negativity.
Just four years ago, the school received an F, its second in three years. The state threatened to close the school and others during the 2000s due to poor grades. In 2006, the states education commissioner said efforts to improve the school should look like the marines have landed.
Carvalho said the schools grade feels very much like a vindication.
The results at Northwestern, where more than 80 percent of students receive free-or-reduced lunch, are even more remarkable when considering a Miami Herald review of state grades showed high-poverty schools are far less likely to earn top A grades under the states formula.
This has been a very successful journey that began five years ago with a significant number of urban core high schools either labeled F or D, said Carvalho. We declared then wed dramatically improve the performance of these schools.
Principals at Hialeah Miami Lakes, Northwestern, Miami Carol City and Dillard said the As and Bs they received for the first time this year were the product of hard work and commitment. At some schools, strategies included Saturday school, night classes and even pro-bono summer tutoring from teachers.
Partnerships with Florida International University, dual enrollment, and Advanced Placement classes also helped boost state-issued grades, which are calculated using state test scores but also factor in things like graduation rates and honors enrollment.
The grades are about more than just pride. Schools get extra funding as a reward for high grades, while repeated years of failing grades can force staff turnover and even closure. The reputation associated with a letter grade can also affect a schools ability to attract new students.
Jose Bueno, principal of Hialeah Miami Lakes, for example, said as his schools grades have risen, fewer students are leaving for magnet schools.
Obviously, the culture has changed, he said.
But keeping the A may prove even harder than earning it, now that the states constantly changing accountability system is slated to become tougher for high schools. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the State Board of Education voted two years ago that the grading scale would automatically get tougher if more than 75 percent of high schools got an A or B.
This year, for the first time, the number was a historic 78 percent.
Stewart, on a conference call with reporters, called the tougher standards appropriate.
Were always continuing to raise the bar in this case, she said. Our students benefit whenever we do that.
Carvalho, however, said hed like to see the State Board of Education reconsider the change. Previous tweaks to the formula contributed to an unprecedented number of F elementary and middle schools this summer and the implementation of a one-letter-grade safety net that kept Miami-Dades Young Mens Preparatory Academy from dropping to a C and the Lawrence Academy Senior High Charter School from dropping to an F.
South Floridas principals, however, say they wont be deterred.
I think the state has done this continuously throughout the years, said Bueno. Well just have to work harder.