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U.S. News: Cedar Key ranks among top schools nationwide

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By Jenna McKenna

Most people with schoolchildren in the house are familiar with the annual college rankings published by the newsmagazine U.S. News & World Report. Many students study the college rankings for years, planning their school applications on the outcome of the current issue.

Bolstered by the runaway success of the college lists, U.S. News this year issued a brand new rating: America's Best High Schools. The magazine issued gold, silver and bronze awards to about 1,600 public high schools, out of almost 19,000 public high schools in the U..S. One of the schools earning bronze category honors was Cedar Key School.

Analysts from School Evaluation Services reviewed data from schools in 40 states and evaluated the schools according to a series of criteria. They considered students' performance on state tests, adjusted for student circumstance. They examined the performance of the school's economically disadvantaged children, and they looked at how well the school provided college level coursework.

"They looked at our 2005-2006 test scores and compared us to other schools using the same socioeconomic categories," said CKS Principal Sue Ice. "We didn't know anything about the rating before it came out."

The main judging criteria - student performance on state testing and economically disadvantage student performance - are subjects in which Cedar Key is virtually unexcelled.

The school has earned an A grade in state testing the last two years, the only high school in the county to do so. And, with about 60 percent of the students considered economically disadvantaged - the requirement to receive free or reduced lunch - both the school's overall performance as well as these students' performance is outstanding.

One of the measurements in the rating is performance gap - how much better one school's disadvanted students perform against the state average. Cedar Key's score was 47.2 in the performance gap, overachieving the state average by 47 percent. Disadvantaged students' test proficiency rate was 82 percent, slightly better than the 79 percent non-disadvantaged students' test proficiency rate. The school's overall state test performance index was over 91 percent.

Cedar Key was automatically eliminated from both silver and gold categories because those ratings hinged on students' achievement in Advance Placement classes, which the school currently does not provide.

"Mr. (Richard)Whitman completed his AP training last year, and we had hoped to provide an AP science class this year," said Ice. "Unfortunately, with the scheduling demands of all the students needing regular science classes, we weren't able to fit it in. But we're still trying."

Ice said the school is also working on adding an AP English course for the coming year, which would be taught by April Phillips. But even without AP classes, Cedar Key's accomplishment is outstanding.

In previous discussions about Cedar Key's excellence, Ice has credited the dedication of the faculty and staff, along with the size of the school and community, for creating an environment conducive to achievement.

"The faculty and staff here are very concerned about helping each individual student learn as much as he or she can," she said. "We have few enough students here that our teachers can give them enough attention to meet their needs."

Parents and community members are also key in the equation, she noted.

"A lot of our parents come to Family Literacy Night every Thursday," she said. "They volunteer in the school, and they maintain communication with their childrens' teachers."

The community at large is also very supportive to the school and its needs, she said.

Ice said since the announcement came Thursday from the magazine and the Levy County School Board, she and school staff had just begun to think about what the ranking means for the school and students.

"I just made the announcment to the staff this morning," she said Monday. "We're going to let the students know today, what a great achievement this is."

Cedar Key has already experienced some changes because of its outstanding work. Because of last years' FCAT scores, this school year brought 18 transfer students to Cedar Key from low-scoring schools because school choice laws allow parents in the county to move a child out of a school that scores a D or an F. Although Cedar Key is very small, and the physical plant will keep it that way, the school can accept transfer students up to the limit of class size mandates: 18 students for grades K-3, 22 students for grades 4-8 and 25 students for grades 9-12.

Ice hopes the recognition will be beneficial to Cedar Key and its students. Perhaps college-bound seniors will get a boost from the school's academic reputation. Perhaps the school's good work with disadvantaged kids will make teachers eligible for grants, allowing them to do more good.

"We hope this helps to show where we are compared to other schools," she said. "It's not just the Florida school grades - we can stand among the top 1,600 schools in the nation."