The Florida Department of Education delivered a terrific Christmas present to the Manatee County school district just as the holiday break was about to begin on Friday.
Four of the district's seven high schools improved a letter grade with two -- Lakewood Ranch and Braden River -- rising to A's, matching Manatee High's top mark. Bayshore rose to a B and Palmetto moved up to a C for the 2011-2012 school year.
These improvements could have been predicted, given the district's impressive jump in graduation rates. Earlier in December, the district learned that Manatee soared to a 76 percent mark -- boosting its statewide ranking from 44th to 21st out of 67 school district.
Graduation rates are one of the criteria for individual school grades along with FCAT scores, student participation and performance in advanced coursework, college readiness and several other factors.
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Southeast maintained its B grade. Only Manatee School for the Arts slipped, from an A to a B.
Overall, the district scored three A's, three B's and one C -- a significant upgrade from 2008 when three high schools lagged with D's.
The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test counts for half a school's grade. This year, the state raised the bar on the test, requiring students learn more to earn passing marks. School grades also included Algebra I for the first time.
Schools that scored 1,050 or more out of 1,600 possible points earned A's. Southeast only came one point short of that. Bayshore came close, too, 17 points away from an A. Lakewood Ranch High won top honors with a score of 1,219.
As with the district's surge in the graduation rate, better school grades can be attributed to the new computer program that allows educators to keep a closer look at student progress and intervene quickly should failure and dropping out be a threat.
Braden River High missed out on an A last year only because the school was docked a letter grade because its at-risk cohort graduation rate missed the qualifying mark by a single percentage point. This year, the at-risk graduation rate for an A stands at 65 percent.
With the new technology, Braden River tracked at-risk students better and emphasized reading comprehension as did Lakewood Ranch.
The winners here are all the students who gain from the increased attention from educators and from the stronger focus on reading.
The teachers who inspire their students to greater achievement also deserve applause.
December has been a very good month for the district with a double dose of outstanding reports.
Mike McCann, the district's supervisor of Dropout Prevention & Alternative Education, summed it up well in remarking about school grades: "Fantastic."
Yes indeed. Cheers to that.