MANATEE -- Three district high schools earned 'A' school grades for the 2011-12 school year, and no Manatee County high school earned less than a 'C,' according to preliminary data released by the Florida Department of Education on Friday.
The data show that Braden River, Lakewood Ranch and Manatee high schools earned A grades for the last school year. Southeast and Bayshore High Schools earned B grades, missing the top distinction by 1 and 17 points, respectively. Palmetto High School raised its grade from a D to a C.
The only district school that did not see improvement was Manatee School for the Arts, which fell from an A to a B.
"No D's," said Mike McCann, district supervisor of Dropout Prevention & Alternative Education. "Fan
Statewide gains were also reported in accountability grades; 231 Florida high schools and combination high schools earned the A distinction this year. The criteria includes FCAT scores, as well the school's graduation rate, Advanced Placement students, and the results of SAT and other college placement tests, among other things. Also measured is the graduation rate of an at-risk cohort of students who are tracked starting in eighth grade because of poor FCAT scores.
Schools certainly benefitted from new computer programs that more effectively track students' progress in the district and make dropout and graduation rates more accurate, McCann said. And in the past, schools also weren't always able to track failing students quickly enough to consistently intervene.
"What is so important about the graduation rate is the at-risk cohort rate," McCann said. "That's the one that a couple of our schools missed and became a B."
Like Braden River High School, which had all the qualifications to be an "A" school last year, but was docked a letter grade because the school's at-risk cohort graduation rate was off the benchmark by one percentage point.
"We lost a letter grade because of our at-risk cohort," Principal Jennifer Gilray said. "This year, we really worked with our data a lot better. It was something that we as an entire team decided to make sure we tracked and coded the kids that are at-risk correctly."
Gilray said Braden River High School has also worked to incorporate reading skills in all of its courses, and that teachers and staff have gained more expertise through the state's reading endorsement program.
"We have a big focus on literature, reading and reading comprehension," Gilray said. "That helps."
Lakewood Ranch High School has had similar experiences, Principal Linda Nesselhauf said. In the past two years they have exhibited A criteria, but have been flagged for low performance gains in reading for certain students and not making the at-risk percentage rate.
"I think our teachers deliver a quality lesson everyday and try to inspire their students to learn," Nesselhauf said. "Long before there were school grades our teachers were inspired to teach. That's what they do everyday."
This year, the at-risk graduation rate requirement was 65 percent.
"Some (high schools) just about made it," McCann said, referring to making the at-risk benchmark. "But then they had the other factors that pushed them over the edge."
Southeast High School missed an A grade by one point. Interim Principal Shane Hall said Friday that the grade results didn't take away from the hard work he sees from students and especially teachers.
"I trust the state. I trust the data is correct," Hall said. "It's an opportunity to make up that point. I'm not displeased."
Hall said he would later sort through data to spot discrepancies or places where the school could improve.
Nesselhauf said Friday that Lakewood Ranch High made an announcement about the letter grade to students, teachers and parents and that cheering was heard throughout the school.
"My teachers are really excited about finally getting the A recognition," Nesselhauf said. "I think it is pride on the student and the staff's part."
The criteria for state grades is constantly evolving. The Department of Education said it built in safeguards this year in their calculations to ease school district's transition to Common Core Standards and plan to include the results of biology and geometry end-of-course assessments in the grading system next year.
More than four district administrators, including Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Bob Gagnon, did not return calls Friday for clarification or comment.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.