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No D’s, F’s on South Florida’s report card

It’s official: For the first time since letter grades were assigned to Florida’s public schools, not a single traditional high school in Miami-Dade or Broward county received a D or an F grade from the state.

“Both of the districts need to be commended for the way we scored,” said Nathan Balasubramanian, Broward Schools’ executive director for strategy and continuous improvement.

On Friday, the Florida Department of Education released the letter grades, which reflect the 2011-2012 school year.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the scores “compelling.”

“Last year, we celebrated the fact that, for the first time, all of our high schools earned above an F,” he said. “This year, we celebrate the fact that we have eliminated D-rated high schools.”

About 63 percent of Miami-Dade schools earned an A grade, and 88 percent received an A or B.

There were no Ds or Fs in Broward either, where 69 percent of schools earned an A grade, and 82 percent scored an A or B. Both counties significantly outperformed state averages in the percentage of A’s and B’s awarded.

Broward, Balasubramanian said, will be studying the strategies employed at schools that showed the biggest improvements, with hopes of replicating that success district-wide.

Standardized tests are the biggest driver of Florida’s high school grades, though the state also factors in graduation rates and participation in advanced-placement courses.

One of Broward’s big winners Friday was Hallandale High School, which leaped from a C grade to an A. Hallandale High principal Estella Eckhardt engineered such dramatic progress in only her first year at the school. Eckhardt credited the school’s Saturday tutoring sessions (with hot breakfast and hot lunch), a culture of high expectations, and a push to emphasize reading instruction.

“Everybody teaches reading in my school — everybody,” Eckhardt said. “A band teacher teaches reading...that way, the students are exposed to it.”

Other high schools that jumped from a C to an A included Piper High School in Broward, and American, Miami Norland and Miami Springs in Miami-Dade.

Also performing well was the City of Hialeah Education Academy, a charter school that offers specialized programs in law enforcement, firefighting and emergency response. The school earned its second straight A since opening five years ago.

“We’re so happy,” said Principal Carlos O. Alvarez. “We’re a high-poverty school. Our kids struggle at home. But we’re able to change them and mold them, and really transform their lives.”

Alvarez credited the school’s focus on discipline and character education. He also noted that the teachers analyzed student test performances throughout the year — and shared their findings with students, parents and the school’s governing board.

“The kids really took ownership of their education,” Alvarez said. “They were monitoring their own performance.”

Florida’s school grades are about a lot more than bragging rights. Schools get extra funding (and teachers receive bonuses) as a reward for high grades, while schools that consistently post failing grades can ultimately be forced to close. The reputation associated with a letter grade can also affect a school’s ability to attract new students.

At Hallandale High, for example, Eckhardt said there are about 250 students who live within the school’s attendance boundaries, but attend high school somewhere else. Thanks to this new A grade, Eckhardt said she was hopeful she could lure some of those kids back.

State education leaders were pleased with how Florida’s high schools fared overall, with the number of A schools rising and the number of D and F schools dropping. This year, 14 Florida schools received a D score, while three schools earned an F.

Still, Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart warned: “You have to use caution when comparing 2011 to 2012.”

The reason comparisons are so difficult: Florida’s formula for grading schools often changes from year to year, with this year being no exception. In some ways, the grading method for high schools became more difficult — graduation rates were calculated using a stricter standard, for example — while in other ways the formula became simpler, as the state no longer factors in whether a majority of low-performing students showed learning gains.

Asked if this year’s formula is, overall, tougher or easier than last year, Stewart responded: “I really believe that that question would be too difficult to answer.”

For schools that struggled under this year’s formula, the state limited any negative grade change to one letter grade — from a B to a C, for example. Had that protection not been in place, the state acknowledged that three additional Florida schools would have earned F grades.

The constant change to the formula is one of many reasons why U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson — a former member of the Florida Legislature — is harshly critical of Florida’s policy of grading schools.

“You cannot grade a school unless you have a consistent formula from year to year,” said Wilson, a Miami Democrat. “They have juggled the formulas around so that the schools can look rosy, so that they can continue the same malarkey.”

Another formula change this year was the inclusion of disabled students (some of whom are battling life-threatening illness) in school grades. Three of Miami-Dade’s educational centers that specialize in such students — Neva King Cooper, Robert Renick and Merrick educational centers — received an F grade. Similar schools in other parts of the state also struggled, though some school districts (including Broward) avoided getting a bad grade through a work-around option offered by the state.

In a nutshell, the state agreed to not grade those educational centers if districts would assign disabled students’ test scores to their neighborhood high school. Those scores would likely have a slightly negative impact on the neighborhood school (a school the child doesn’t actually attend) but the educational center would not have to worry about getting a failing school grade — which could imperil its ability to stay open.

Carvalho said Miami-Dade rejected the work-around “based on principle.”

“We believe that shifting the accountability for students to schools whose teachers never saw them or taught them is deeply flawed,” Carvalho said. “How can a child’s accountability be assigned to teachers and schools that they never attended?”

To see a specific school grade, go to