No F's and more A's for Miami-Dade and Broward high schools

12/18/2013 11:40 AM

12/18/2013 9:33 PM

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 school’s four-year climb from F to an A was cemented Wednesday with the state’s 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 A’s. Other hard-scrabble schools maintained their A’s or B’s, 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 A’s and B’s 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.

"We’ll celebrate for five minutes, relish this and be under the shadow of success. But then we’ll 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 district’s high schools receiving A’s and B’s. In Broward, the results were even better, with 91 percent earning top grades.

The statewide average for A’s and B’s 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 state’s 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.

“We’ve 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 Lauderdale’s first black school. But though school administrators boast of Dillard’s “rich and proud heritage,” the school has at times struggled under Florida’s letter-grade system.

Dillard received an F grade in 2002, and has received numerous D grades over the years.

Dillard’s grades have been steadily improving, however, rising to a B two years ago. This year’s jump from a C to an A was the latest evidence of Dillard’s 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 Lauderdale’s 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, Robinson’s 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 Dillard’s 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 he’s 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 state’s education commissioner said efforts to improve the school should look like “the marines have landed.”

Carvalho said the school’s 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 state’s 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 we’d dramatically improve the performance of these schools.”

Principals at Hialeah Miami Lakes, Northwestern, Miami Carol City and Dillard said the A’s and B’s 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 school’s ability to attract new students.

Jose Bueno, principal of Hialeah Miami Lakes, for example, said as his school’s 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 state’s 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.’’

“We’re always continuing to raise the bar in this case,’’ she said. “Our students benefit whenever we do that.”

Carvalho, however, said he’d 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-Dade’s Young Men’s Preparatory Academy from dropping to a C and the Lawrence Academy Senior High Charter School from dropping to an F.

South Florida’s principals, however, say they won’t be deterred.

“I think the state has done this continuously throughout the years,” said Bueno. “We’ll just have to work harder.”

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