Nova Scotia high schools are earning better grades and leading the way in Atlantic Canada, according to this year’s annual report card by a Halifax think-tank.

The schools in the top two spots remain the same, with the highest rank going to Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Terre Noire, Inverness County, followed by Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford.

But this year’s apparent Cinderella story comes from Hants North Rural High School in Kennetcook.

After three consecutive Ds and no final mark last year, the Hants County school received a B minus in the 7th Annual Report Card on Atlantic Canadian High Schools, released Tuesday morning.

The grade “sits at about the provincial average, but climbing from the bottom of the pack to the middle of the pack is no easy feat,” said Bobby O’Keefe, co-author of the report and research manager with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Hants North principal Patricia MacKinnon was pleasantly surprised when notified of the results.

“I can see some areas where we need improvement and some areas where we’ve made gains,” she said after briefly reviewing the report.

“But we are thrilled to see that we have made gains, and that’s something to celebrate.”

The report card gives separate scores for a number of factors, including attendance, grades in math, science and language arts, provincial exam results, the number of students grading from one level to the next, post-secondary performance, teacher-student ratio, enrolment and even socio-economic status.

But it doesn’t say what exactly the schools did to achieve these marks.

At Hants North, Ms. MacKinnon said staff and students are working toward a spot in the Nova Scotia School Accreditation Program. The program asks schools to identify strengths and weaknesses and develop a specific, attainable and measurable plan for improvement.

So far, the 340 high school students have improved their math grades, while a positive reinforcement program and monthly student and staff recognition assemblies have helped improve behaviour, attendance, participation and performance, Ms. MacKinnon said.

“We have made considerable gains in relation to our achievement, both at the provincial level and the board level, and also, according to this document, in the classroom itself, and of course, that’s where it all starts,” she said, adding that the school will share the report card with staff and further review the results.

For the first time, Nova Scotia’s Acadian high schools were reviewed and ranked separately. The francophone schools were not compared to the anglophone schools due to differences in provincial exams, the institute said.

Ecole du Carrefour in Dartmouth was the top francophone school, earning a B. Ecole secondaire de Par-en-Bas in Tusket, Yarmouth County, received a B minus, earning the second spot.

But only these two schools from the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial’s 10 high schools received a ranking, mainly due to small enrolment, which brings privacy issues into play.

Among anglophone schools, 15 (not including Hants North) earned higher marks this year and 37 of the province’s 55 high schools ranked in this report earned a B minus or better.

A total of 18 of the province’s English schools were not ranked due to incomplete data or other factors.

Twelve schools saw grades fall, including last-place Northeast Kings Education Centre in Canning. The Kings County school slipped from a C to a C minus and ended up in 55th spot.

But Mr. O’Keefe said that in Atlantic Canada, “Nova Scotia leads the charge of improvement, with more than twice the number of improving schools than those seeing their grade fall” over the past five years.

He also pointed to improvements at Canso Academy, Drumlin Heights Consolidated School in Glenwood, Yarmouth County, Holy Angels High School in Sydney, Lockview High School in Fall River and Halifax West High School.

All saw their marks increase by three levels over the past five reports.”Schools, big or small, rich or poor, rural or urban, they’re all showing that they are capable of getting better,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

“And note, I said getting better. This . . . has never been about winning or losing. It’s about making schools better.