TAMPA — Like the most well-behaved middle school students who ever walked a hallway, the young men of Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy stride single file past principal John Haley III.
He fist-bumps one, then another. "How ya doing, my man? Good to see you. ... That's my man." One wants to discuss a pair of earphones a classmate might have swiped. "When I get down to lunch, we're going to talk about it," Haley tells him.
It's been a month since Haley and his stylishly dressed staff welcomed the students to Tampa's first all-male public school, opening car doors and greeting kids as if each was the president leaving Air Force One.
Some wore deer-in-the-headlights expressions. Many struggled with the neckties, part of the school's strict dress code.
Since then they've gotten the hang of dressing, though the look sometimes falls apart after physical education class.
Behavior is much better than last year, when Franklin was a mixed-gender school with a C grade and a student body that was 96 percent low-income.
"Yes. We're dealing with 300 boys," Haley said. "But they're minor. They have not taken that much time."
Returning students are adjusting to a changed environment.
"For the most part, they've taken on that leadership role that we've asked of them," Haley said. "A couple haven't, but for the most part it's been an improvement."
Franklin is one of two single-gender middle schools the Hillsborough district opened this year with federal magnet money. The other, Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy, is led by Karen French, Franklin's last principal.
Both have enhanced after-school activities and iPads for all students.
On Wednesday, Franklin allowed reporters to visit several classes to see the iPads in use.
In one class, students worked in groups to explore the six elements of geography.
In another, they used the devices to take notes on a textbook lesson about insects found in food. Teacher Ira Glover, an enthusiastic practitioner of boy-oriented teaching, broke the lesson up with a brain break that had the kids tossing a ball and naming kinds of fruits, vegetables, shoes and shirts.
In a third class, kids raced to hunt for exotic locations on Google Earth.
"It's cool," said sixth-grader Christian Medina, zooming in on a dogsled in Alaska. "You see a lot of cool stuff."
Classmate Ian Barber maneuvered his iPad is if it were an airplane flying over Devils Tower.
"I use a laptop at home, but an iPad is definitely where the money's at," he said.
The iPads are collected, charged and stored in the school at the end of the day. A few have been dropped, teachers said. Only one was broken.
"They're able to experience things in a different mode than you can do only through the textbook," Haley said. "You don't have to spend much time training them on the apps. They pick it right up. Our teachers, we have to train."
Just what makes Franklin work so far is a matter of opinion.
Haley said it's the culture, more like a fancy boarding school than a public school in the heart of industrial east Tampa.
"We often will refer to our fellows by their last name, Mr. So-and-so" he said. "There's still a line of authority, but I think it shows a level of respect that maybe they're not used to getting."
Beverly Mauldin, president of the PTSA, is convinced the difference is in the removal of girls.
"The little boys are not competing," she said — at least not for the girls' attention. "I don't think they miss the girls all that much."
All in all, she's seen improvement. "There's no bullying as there was before," she said.
Her grandson, a high-achieving eighth-grader, has described returning classmates who are not giving school their best efforts.
"Some of the men from last year are still not as focused as we want them to be," she said. "But the sixth-graders are full speed ahead."
Haley is curious to see how many parents turn out for the first conference night on Thursday. He looks forward to the school's parent-and-child Saturday session this week, which will be about bullying.
And, to test this educational model, he'll read with interest the spring test scores of those returning students.
Some had disappointing grades on their early progress reports. "But we expect this to be a wake-up call and I expect them to step up," he said. "And I think most of them already have done that."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356.