High marks for Alachua County high schools

Liz Alza, Spanish teacher, instructs students at Professional Academies Magnet at Loften High School on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012 in Gainesville, Fla. Alachua County high school grades were released by the state Department of Education raised Lofton's grade from a D to an A.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 9:27 p.m.

More than four years ago, Alachua County Public Schools shifted the focus of then Loften High School.

The school that had been known for helping students who had fallen behind became a career and technical magnet school and started recruiting the best and brightest teens.

Now called Professional Academies Magnet at Loften, the school posted a graduation rate of 82 percent in 2010-2011, more than 23 percentage points higher than the previous year.

On Wednesday, the school's transformation was completed, earning Loften its first A school grade.

On the day in which the state revealed school grades for all of Florida's public high schools, six of Alachua County's seven traditional high schools were deemed "high performing," earning either an A or B grade. Buchholz, Newberry and Professional Academies Magnet at Loften earned top marks of an A while Eastside, Gainesville and Santa Fe High School received B grades.

Hawthorne Middle/High School raised its grade to a C during the 2010-2011 academic year from a D the previous year.

Half of a high school's state grade is based on how well students perform on the FCAT. The other half of the calculation includes the overall graduation rate, participation in advanced courses, student performance on the SAT or ACT and the graduation rate for at-risk students.

"I think everyone works so hard," said Deputy Superintendent Sandy Hollinger. "This is just a time of high anticipation and anxiety for our schools. To know that we've continued to move forward has made everyone at every school feel really good."

Loften Principal Chet Sanders said cheers resounded across the school as he made the announcement on the morning news.

"What a surprise," he said. "We were thinking we had a good shot at a B. There was this, ‘Maybe if everything falls into place,' " the school could earn an A.

The A has been accomplished, but it took years to get there.

Hollinger said students who hadn't performed well in high school could attend Loften in previous years and regain lost credits at their own pace.

But concerns about the graduation rate and the advent of other options for wayward students led to rebranding the school.

"It's taken a while," Hollinger said. "We have really gone out and talked about the program and recruited students for the program. It's evolved. Our focus is a standard high school diploma."

Since the inception of the professional academies magnet, FCAT scores and graduation rates have improved.

Nearly half of Loften students made a score of 3 or higher (out of 5) on the FCAT reading portion in 2010-2011. That's up 20 percentage points over the 26 percent of students who scored 3 or higher in 2006-2007. Students meeting the mark in writing increased from 70 percent to 92 percent during the same period.

During the 2006-07 school year, Loften's dropout rate topped 22 percent. The dropout rate was 4.2 percent for 2010-11.

Sanders said Loften's A grade shows that in a district full of good choices, Loften is a great one.

"I think it's a validation of what we offer the school community," he said.

Joy reigned supreme in Hawthorne as well, said Principal Veita Jackson-Carter. The school struggled with D grades the two previous school years before earning a C in 2010-11.

"It was the pinnacle of hearing how hard work pays off," she said. "This is a place for learning — period. We don't have choices of who our kids are. They are who they are."

For Hawthorne, that means virtually all its students are deemed at-risk.

"Our kids are graduating and going to college. That's why we're here," she said. "I'm a proud principal today."

P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School also earned an A grade from the state.

Schools will now decide how to divvy up school recognition funds, which are distributed by the state to schools that earn an A or show exemplary improvement.

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