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School grades: Palm Beach County logs improvements, retains B grade

Palm Beach County continues to reign as Florida’s highest performing large urban school district, and held its B rating for a second year, but its lead is shrinking as districts such as Miami-Dade and Broward make bigger strides in student performance, according to data released Wednesday by the state’s Department of Education.

State officials found much to boast about in the final tabulations.

The number of A-rated Florida districts went from three to 11, including Martin County public schools. At the campus level, the percentage of schools statewide earning a grade of A or B grew to 57 percent from 46 percent, while the number of F-rated schools fell by more than half.

Palm Beach County, which improved its overall score but not its grade, matched the state’s share of A and B-rated schools. It was a rate that held true for the 117 schools that are district-run and the 36 charters that are operated with public money but private management.

The county saw 41 schools go up at least one letter grade, including two high schools: Boynton Beach and Olympic Heights. Two public schools and four charters made a two-letter improvement. Washington Elementary in Riviera Beach recorded the biggest gains, leaping to a B from last year’s F.

“I just sent an email congratulating my teachers,” Washington Principal Sandra Edwards said. She credited the improvement to a longer school day, buy-in from parents to cut student absences and tardies and a change in daily lessons.

Still, 21 schools in the county saw their grades drop one letter, including five in some of the county’s poorest communities — Belle Glade, Riviera Beach and Lake Worth — that dropped from a C to a D.

Five schools in the county failed. Three of those are charter schools. The other two were district schools aimed at educating the most struggling students. One of those schools is closing, the other, Gold Coast, is merging with another school as the district works to find a better model to help those students.

Every year, the state calculates school grades based on up to 11 components, including student scores on statewide exams and gains made over the previous year. Palm Beach County outranked its urban district peers in five of those components including achievement in math, science, social studies and graduation rates.

The formula also takes into account student achievement in advanced courses or those that earn industry certifications. Nearly half of Palm Beach County’s 21-point gain was made by placing more middle school students in those courses, according to the data.

That 21-point gain lags the statewide average of nearly 25 points and also is less than those logged by all of the large urban districts but Orange and Pinellas counties.

Where the district is struggling is with its youngest readers, particularly those who are just learning English, said Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen.

“That has been a soft spot for us. We have to do a better job in pre-k through 2,” Christiansen said. The district has re-organized its central office and curriculum experts to address the weakness.

If both Palm Beach and Miami-Dade duplicated their gains next year, Miami-Dade would have caught up and would share the title of best-performing among the big districts.

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