kasandra-robinson_web.jpgThree high schools. Three educational icons in their communities. Three persistently failing institutions. And now they have something else in common. Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County, Dillard in Broward County and Miami Northwestern in Miami-Dade County got an early Christmas present when the state announced they have been awarded “A” grades for the first time.

Educators in the three counties are ecstatic over the results, announced Dec. 18. Boynton Beach High Principal Karen Whetsell asked all her teachers to open all the doors so students could let out a collective cheer and let everybody in town hear how proud they were of their achievement.

 “It’s incredible. It’s quite a feeling,” said Miami Northwestern High Principal Wallace Aristide. “I am in awe. I haven’t slept in three days.”

Casandra Robinson, principal of Dillard High, described her school’s performance this way: “We have won the educational Super Bowl. We have hit the academic lottery.”

“Though today will be remembered as the day we got our first ‘A,’ the work began way before now,” Robinson said at a press conference organized by the Broward school district. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

 In Broward, 91 percent of high schools got either “A” or “B” grades – the highest percentage in the tri-county area.

Also getting “A” for the first time this year was another Broward school, Deerfield Beach High, whose student population is 49 percent black.

“We are incredibly proud of our high school grades,” Broward School Superintendent Robert W. Runcie said in a statement. “While we know there is more work to do, these results signify that we are on the right path for increasing student academic achievement. I commend our teachers, administrators and students for their hard work and dedication. We will continue to focus on ensuring all students are college and career ready.”

In Miami-Dade, 86 percent of high schools got either “A” or “B” grades. For the third year in a row, none received an “F” grade.

Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho picked Miami Northwestern in Liberty City as the venue to announce his district’s results.

“Today we are celebrating at a school that was labeled as a failing school for many years,” said Carvalho. “We have seen that our students, with the support of family, community and organizations like Florida International University and JP Morgan Chase, can move from being known as a failure to being a champion. You are looking at success today – in students, teachers, and administrators,” he said.

Northwestern High is a cherished community institution and black educators, alumni and students celebrated the “A” grade at a school that was on the brink of being closed four years ago for failing to meet state standards.

School officials said the achievement was the result of a determined drive to restore the school’s academic

reputation, an effort that yielded “B” grades the last two years.

The school got “D” or “F” grades for 12 consecutive years between 1998 and 2010 and was labeled one of the 163 “dropout factories” in the state by a Johns Hopkins University study of retention rates of students from their freshman to senior year.

The school’s recent past included a highly publicized sex scandal in 2006 involving a star football player, forcing the resignation of the principal, Dwight Bernard, who was eventually acquitted by a Miami-Dade jury on charges of covering up the incident. After his acquittal, Bernard sued the Miami Dade school board for $329,000. Aristide, then assistant principal, took over the helm and, according

to some observers, ushered in a new era of academic reforms, working with an active alumni group to schedule weekly accountability meetings with teachers and students. Aristide also searched for top teachers to teach challenging classes to college-bound students while increasing advanced placement classes from three to 12.

The school also offered a dual enrollment program in which students can pursue a bachelor’s degree at Florida International University while earning their high school diploma.

The program doubled in enrollment, from 100 in 2010 to 200 today, Aristide said. Student attendance is up 97 percent from 80 percent three years ago, he added.

“You have 4- and 5-year-olds asking their parents if they could be a Bull,” Aristide said, referring to the school’s mascot.

For Larry Brown, an active Northwestern alumni and member of the alumni association Hall of Fame, none of this happened by chance. “If you level the playing field by providing the school resources, you achieve these things,” he said.

In Palm Beach County, only about 60 percent of all high schools got “A” or “B.” Whetsell, who is in her third year as principal of Boynton Beach High, said even though her school received a “B” last year, she still had to contend with its reputation as being rowdy and raucous. “We still battle that,” she said, adding that, when she goes to the grocery store, people often say to her, “You’re at that school.”

At one point, Boynton Beach High was just a few points away from an “F” but a collective effort made the turnaround. “It took a lot of dedication. We did it together as a team. We have great teachers and great administrators” she said.

“We also did it by monitoring our progress and making adjustments where needed. It’s really an exciting journey for me. It’s a wonderful school to get an ‘A.’ My goal is 100 percent graduation.”

South Florida Times Managing Editor Carolyn Guniss contributed to this report.