TAMPA — Students hustle across the quadrangle to class. Several carry folders from the ACT testing service, and one rushes by clutching a copy of Dale Carnegie's classic self-improvement manual, How To Win Friends and Influence People. They studiously avoid walking on the grass.
This is Middleton High School.
The same school that last year landed on the bottom rung of the state's accountability system, trying desperately to break a string of D grades and avoid a mandatory overhaul. The same school that used to see regular brawls, a swarm of police outside at dismissal time, and little talk of academic excellence.
But lately, state and district officials say the school has made strong progress toward changing that reputation and avoiding a state takeover this spring.
Underperforming teachers have been reassigned, and specialists are working with principal Owen Young to raise student achievement. Those in the school's magnet programs in math, engineering and technology routinely win awards.
Students say Middleton has become a different place.
"I think the culture of the school has changed," said senior Kylila Bullard. "They're pushing us more toward college."
• • •
Hands were going up in Quicta Walters' Algebra II class.
Students had been working quietly in pairs, crunching formulas, as the 26-year-old teacher moved around the room. But now a few were hitting a wall.
"Ms. Walters, would you please come over here?" one male student asked. "What am I doing wrong?"
She took a quick glance at his work and gave a bemused look.
"You're going too fast," she said.
A few more students raised their hands, and Walters shifted gears. Signaling to co-teacher Amanda Cooper, she moved to the white board.
"Ms. Cooper and I are going to model it for you," Walters said.
With that, the two teachers launched into a math performance, writing formulas on the board and checking each other's work. It was a comedy routine of sorts, but they never stopped teaching. Within moments, students' frustration had turned to laughter, and they were back on track.
Raising student performance has been the name of the game at Middleton in recent years. Once the pride of East Tampa's black community, the school was closed in 1971 under a federal desegregation order. Alumni led a campaign to reopen it seven years ago, but the school has struggled academically.
While reading and math scores rose across Florida between 2005 and 2008, they sank at Middleton. Just 21 percent of sophomores passed the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 2008 while 51 percent passed in math, compared with 38 and 69 percent respectively statewide.
The Department of Education responded by putting Middleton on its list of most troubled schools. The Hillsborough County School District pledged to turn the school around by this spring, or face a potential state takeover under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Officials celebrated an achievement in May — a 10-point gain in the percentage of struggling students who improved in reading. But with scores in other categories declining, Middleton remained on Florida's watch list.
The state attention brought extra help, in the form of money and support from Department of Education specialists. Middleton hired full-time mentors in reading, math, and science. And teachers got intensive training in the best ways to use student performance data.
Some of those changes were evident in Walters' class. Low-performing students were seated strategically next to high-scoring students who could help during group work. And Cooper, her co-teacher that day, jumped in when they needed extra support.
But all the training in the world can't give a teacher good instincts.
And Walters — a fifth-year teacher who has been nominated by her colleagues for the district's Ida S. Baker Diversity Teacher of the Year award — knows how to run a classroom. She knows when to push students, and when to pull them with a quick joke and a giggle.
"If they're having fun, they're learning," Walters said.
• • •
While Hillsborough made most of the changes Florida demanded in its turnaround plan for Middleton, the district held its ground on one point in the spring.
While the state called for a new principal with a "clear record of turning around a similar school," superintendent MaryEllen Elia turned to then-assistant principal Young to succeed Carl Green, who moved to Brandon High.
Young had never led a school, but he had served for years as an assistant principal and guidance counselor in Maryland, Washington and at King High. And he knew Middleton.
Patrolling around the campus on a recent morning, it's clear Young has made the campus his own. Every student gets a greeting, and the tardy ones rarely pass without a warning.
"It's important that everyone understand the urgency," Young said, turning his attention to a pack of dawdling students. "Ladies and gentlemen, let's go!"
Most teachers have embraced the intense focus on raising achievement, and those that haven't are no longer at the school, he said.
"It has to be about children," Young said. "If you cannot adjust yourself to that model, this is not the place for you."
Seniors, who have seen three principals during their four years at Middleton, say the changes have been striking.
There's more discipline, fewer fights and more students joining clubs, said William Cross.
The strength of the school's computer science magnet program prompted Kylila Bullard to transfer from the International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough High. She hopes to ride it all the way to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
And school counselors reach out to students on a daily basis, said Kyle Davidson.
"They'll call you down, see how things are going," he said. "Things are a lot more personal now."
Students say Middleton's false reputation as a dangerous place has kept numbers low in its magnet programs, even though it has placed at top levels in state and regional competitions in math and robotics. They're determined to change the perception.
"This is our school," said senior Naya Young. "We're rolling."
Calvin Simmons, a 1968 graduate and president of the school's alumni association, said the improvements are evident. "It's a different atmosphere for learning."
The state Department of Education's representative, regional director Gail Daves, says the same thing.
"It's a really strong leadership team," she said. "And because Owen was there last year, and we worked with him, we understand he really is an instructional leader. He certainly is a strong leader for that school."
The bottom line won't come until FCAT scores are released in May, and Middleton will need to earn a grade of C and show improvements among under-achieving groups to escape further state intervention.
But Daves said the school is rising to that challenge.
"Absolutely things are on track," she said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.