TAMPA — Starting next fall, Hillsborough schools will launch the nation's first large-scale experiment with a school reform plan created by the organization best known for the SAT college-entrance exam.
No district in the nation has opened its arms so broadly to the nonprofit College Board, whose president visited Tampa on Wednesday to kick off the EXCELerator Schools initiative.
Middle-of-the-road students, particularly those who would be the first in their family to attend college, will find support in everything from note-taking skills to applying to universities.
English and math teachers will be trained to use the College Board's curriculum to push their students to higher levels of thinking. This includes a heavy emphasis on group work.
Hillsborough plans to expand the concept — being piloted this year at four struggling campuses — to all of its high schools and middle schools. District officials say they expect the initiative to raise graduation rates and prepare more students for college by making courses more rigorous.
But the model is new. Only 27 schools nationally are using the approach, many for less than two years. Early results are mixed, but do show far more students tackling higher level courses.
"This isn't a guinea pig deal," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "This is a way to really open up the pathways for all students to be successful."
Ultimately, more students will be pushed to take college-level Advanced Placement courses, especially students from minority and low-income families traditionally underrepresented in these courses.
"This is about believing that kids can achieve to a high level, and it should be open to everybody," said Gaston Caperton, president of the New York-based College Board.
Elia said she was sold on the program just months after it was introduced to the district through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
She sees promising signs from the pilot programs at East Bay, Leto, Middleton and Plant City high schools, which began this fall.
Discipline referrals at the schools are generally down. Attendance has edged up slightly. Enrollment in AP courses has soared, by as much as 70 to 100 percent at some schools.
Hillsborough's sweeping expansion will cost $3.6-million each year for the next three years, funded partially through grants.
Elia said she has no qualms about being a pioneer.
"If I wasn't going to put it in every school, which one was I not going to do it in?" she said. "It's not easy to choose the one that's not going to get it."
David Brown, the principal at Leto High, which piloted the program this fall, said he hopes it will help change his school's reputation.
"I'm still trying to shake that perception of, 'That's the Hispanic school,' " Brown said. "I want it to be, 'That's the school where people go to college, just like they do at Plant.' "
His reference to Plant High, one of Hillsborough's most celebrated and affluent high schools, is telling. District officials say even schools like Plant need the programs debuting at Leto.
Some teachers have reservations. School officials have heard concerns about giving up lesson plans taught for years. They say the change doesn't have to be drastic. For example, English teachers can still pick some of the novels their students read.
But change is certain. Next school year, English and math instructors in grades six through 12 will be expected to use the same College Board-provided workbooks for half of the days in the school year.
At first, Deborah Prill was a skeptic. The Leto English teacher groaned at the emphasis on having students work in groups.
The 25-year educator changed her mind after a day of training.
"No more sage on the stage. No more stand up and lecture. I love what it's done for me as a teacher," said Prill, who will train others this summer. "It's helped me become more creative."
On a recent morning, seniors in her classroom and the adjacent one were acting out scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Laughter floated above the plastic crowns precariously perched on their heads.
Students had to use props, learn stage blocking and memorize lines. "Reading it so many times, I actually understood what everything means now," said 17-year-old Daren Rocha, a senior.
His teacher, Carolyn Wilcher, has taught Macbeth for 24 years, but never before had the students act out scenes. Maybe, she mused, she should have.
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.