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ALACHUA COUNTY – While the Alachua County School District received an “A” for the 2014-2015 school year, individual schools received a broad range of grades.

One marked difference between the most recent grades and those of previous years is that the current grades only factor students’ scores on the Florida Standards Assessment exam, while prior assessments considered learning gains and other aspects of school performance.

Local principals lauded their teachers’ relentless efforts to accommodate to the new exam and their overall dedication to students.

Lynn McNeill just became principal of High Springs Community School this summer. She said one of the reasons why High Springs - the only K through 8th grade school in the county - earned an A is due to the teachers getting to know students on an individual level.

“Nine years we have many of these students, and the staff get to know these children very well,” she said. “What’s special is that there’s maybe a deeper understanding of each individual child by the staff, for the most part, because they're here with us for so long. And other schools don’t have that luxury. “

She also said the vast amount of support the High Springs community extends to the school has contributed to its success.

“I think that we’re a community school in its truest form,” she said. “It really was heart-warming to me when I came here, the sheer number of people that don’t even have children in the school but are here in the community. They live here, have a business here, are part of a church here. That lets me know immediately about all of the things that they’ve done in the past to help the school and all of the things that they’re willing to do."

Eva Copeland, the principal at Alachua Elementary, said her school received a high C, roughly nine points shy of a B.

She said the steps her faculty have been taking are all about professional development and breaking down the new standards.

“I’m making sure that my teachers know what the standards are asking them to teach, and at what level they’re asking them to teach, because that’s the difference from before,” she said.

She also praised superintendent Dr. Owen Roberts for bringing on new initiatives, such as the Fast ForWord reading program, which encourages a more hands-on approach to literacy.

“Some of our kids can learn out of books, but other ones really need to kind of delve in and have hands in what they’re doing,” she said.

W.W. Irby Elementary School also received a C because they take on the same grade as Alachua Elementary, said principal Valde Fortner.

“We partner with them, whether it’s through meetings or trainings or what have you,” Fortner said. “[We] make sure we’re all in alignment and working towards the standard like we would if we were third, fourth and fifth [grade].”

She also agreed that the faculty take professional development seriously

“Professional development is key in getting us to move forward in the work that we are doing and so we can impact students achievement – our ultimate goal,” she said. “Making sure that they’re socially, emotionally well – that’s the first.”

She also credited PLC’s – Professional Learning Communities – with effective communication between teachers and staff about what their needs are and what resources are available to help them achieve their goals.

Manda Bessner, the principal at Mebane Middle School said the school earned a B after several years of earning a D.

“I know that our focus for the last couple years has been on language and literacy development for our students,” she said. “The teachers have stepped up to the plate and provided those opportunities for our students."

Newberry Elementary School received a B, a drop from the A the school received the year before. Principal Pearl Pinson said she wants parents to understand that the score doesn’t factor in learning gains, which have been indicative of growth in past years.

She said she hopes the administration at the school will continue to focus on these new expectations.

“For us, I think the big thing is figuring out the expectations of the new standards,” she said. “Once you’ve had a year to see what the test looks like, that’s going to be a huge help for us in making sure that we’re targeting our instruction for what we need. “

Newberry’s Oakview Middle School earned an A after dropping to a C in the 13-14 school year. Principal Kelly Armstrong said he believes the improvement is a result of the teachers at the school working to align their curriculum with the new standards of the FSA exam.

“I think one of the key parts are just teachers really diving in and knowing this new standard that we are held to, who were either on committees with the district [or through] their own personal research and really working to align what we do here with what the State’s asking us to do,” he said.

Even the principals of schools that received an A, such as Newberry High School (NHS), said they were determined to not become complacent, but rather strive for a higher percentage on the grading scale.

“[The A] stems from quality instruction, quality teachers and staff—motivating students and keeping them engaged to a common goal to be successful on state exams and in life,” NHS principal Ken Purvis said. “I think it’s maintaining the level of expectations. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve earned A’s, and every year we’re still trying to climb the ladder within that A spectrum to get better every year.”

Hawthorne Middle/High School and Shell Elementary both received an F for the 13-14 school year, but improved to a D and C, respectively. As principal of both schools, Libby Hartwell said these grades are frustrating because if anyone were to spend time at either school, he or she would know that it is not an F school.

“We have children who are doing amazing things every day [and] we have teachers doing amazing things everyday,” she said. “The score is based on this one test. There are so many other factors that go into being a good quality school."

She said the protocols put into place at the schools to continue improving include teachers looking at individual student data and making decisions based on what is best for that particular student’s learning style.

That has made a big difference in tracking the data and assessing the best way students can learn, she said.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re seeing improvement in the number of kids passing the tests,” she said. “Granted, it’s not as fast as we would like it, but it’s progress nonetheless.”

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