Hillsborough schools earn more A's and B's than they did last year, and fewer C'sand D's.
By LETITIA STEIN and JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published June 15, 2006
TAMPA - The school secretary answering the phone at Alexander Elementary refused to believe the caller. No way would the governor's office be calling principal Manuel Duran.
Except to deliver the best news a Florida school can hear.
Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday sang the praises of the principal who answers to the Spanish nickname abuelo, or grandfather, at the Town 'N Country school. Duran stood behind the governor at a news conference in Tallahassee where he announced Alexander's A grade.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia shared the spotlight as Hillsborough County schools posted more A's and B's - and fewer C's and D's - than they did last year. The only F belonged to a charter school, Central City Elementary of Tampa.
The report card: 93 A's, 59 B's, 43 C's , 10 D's and the one F.
"We targeted schools that we knew needed help," Elia said. "We're seeing the results of a long year of focused instruction,"
Florida offers cash rewards to schools that receive A's. But recognition is no small matter either, especially at Alexander. It received a D in the first round of grades in 1999. Progress came year by year, one grade at a time. This year, it celebrated its first A in grand style.
"When the superintendent calls you at home and says congratulations, and the governor is inviting you up to Tallahassee, it's all worth it," Duran told the crowd. "It's not the dollars, because we don't make the money; we make the love and we make the connections."
Like many of his students, Duran came to Florida speaking only Spanish. He credits the school's progress to an after-school program focused on English instruction, and the school's efforts to retain teachers and boost attendance. The results impressed state education officials.
"He realizes that a child can't learn if he doesn't come to school, which may seem like a radical idea," Bush said, noting that Duran brought good teachers out of retirement to help with the program.
Back at home, other successes attracted less fanfare.
Palm River Elementary soared three letter grades, from a D to an A. This marked the second time that the school has pulled off this particular feat in a roller coaster ride with the school grading system.
"You're looking at a transient population and that makes it very difficult to keep that core group," assistant principal Roy Moral said.
Informal surveys show that only 20 percent of kindergarteners at the school are still there by the time they reach the fifth grade. This year's gains at Palm River reflect a teaching strategy that emphasized one-on-one time with students, Moral said.
With sighs of relief, three elementary schools in Tampa shed the stigma of last year's F grades. Just Elementary made significant gains to get to a D. Edison and Potter elementaries climbed to C's.
"Whoo-hoo and screams - and then it's right back on task," said principal Tracye Brown, describing the reaction at Potter Elementary.
Other notable jumps: Gaither High moved from a C to an A in the North Tampa suburbs. So did two high-poverty schools: Wimauma Elementary in south Hillsborough and Trapnell Elementary in Plant City.
At Armwood High, assistant principal Nicole Aldridge will have to practice her pucker after the school improved from a D to a C. She promised students that she would kiss a pig if they raised the grade.
"Maybe I should have also included some district-level officials," said Aldridge, who shared the bet with a departing principal.
Elsewhere, schools were disappointed. Hillsborough picked up D's at Cahoon and Sheehy elementary schools and East Bay High.
Schools unable to shed last year's D grades included Hillsborough and Middleton high schools and Egypt Lake, Oak Park and Washington elementary schools.
"On those D schools, we are going to analyze school by school and student by student to find out what we need to do to bring change," said Elia, the superintendent.
The F charter school, Central City Elementary, this spring got a warning the superintendent was going to recommend not renewing its charter due to poor student performance. School Board members can factor the state grade in their decision for the charter expiring in July.
The school's principal declined to comment.
In addition to school grades, state officials released results that show whether schools met the standards required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That determines whether schools have made adequate yearly progress for students, regardless of race or disability or family income.
Hillsborough, like the rest of the state, didn't fare as well on this report. Only 27 percent of schools passed federal standards. The discrepancy is difficult for many people to understand, Elia said.
"We certainly know that we have more work to do," she said. "Next year, we're going to get even better."