Plan raises academic prospects

The School Board joins a College Board program to help minority and low-income students.

By Letitia Stein, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008

TAMPA - Middle and high schools across Hillsborough County are joining a nationally developed initiative to raise academic expectations, especially for minority and low-income students.

On Tuesday, School Board members dramatically expanded a pilot project next school year that began at four high schools through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

They agreed to a three-year partnership with the College Board, a nonprofit educational testing company best known for its SAT admissions test and Advanced Placement programs.

Hillsborough is latching onto the company's EXCELerator program to increase the number of students taking honors and Advanced Placement classes, especially those who have been historically underrepresented.

"There are students in every one of our high schools - our highest-performing high schools and our ones with the most struggles - there are students that this program will target," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.

School officials were encouraged by early results showing improved student attendance and grades at the pilot high schools: Leto, Middleton, Plant City and East Bay. Now they're considering the EXCELerator program as a model for high school reform.

The multifaceted program mixes student counseling, teacher training and curriculum changes. Hillsborough has received federal grants expected to help cover $3.6-million in annual expenses.

School officials stressed that teachers will have flexibility in incorporating the language arts and math component, known as SpringBoard. They are addressing the concerns raised by teachers at the pilot schools, who have fears about the program consuming too much of their lesson plans.

"It doesn't have to mean a dramatic change in routines," said Eric Bergholm, the general director of advanced academic access overseeing the pilot. "This is a model that could work at any school."

In other business, the School Board named Pansy Houghton as the director of student planning and placement. She currently supervises Hillsborough's choice programs.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.