TAMPA — High school performance slipped this year in Hillsborough County, with a majority of schools dropping a grade or more in the state rating system.
Both Hillsborough and Freedom high schools dropped to a C from an A, with 10 schools earning D grades.
But despite those troubles, the district earned its second overall A grade, with 57 percent of schools earning that designation based on performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.
And a few schools enjoyed spectacular gains. Sulphur Springs Elementary — which last year earned its second F and an unwanted spot on a state list of 13 troubled schools — vaulted to a B grade. Franklin Middle, also on the list, improved to a C from a D.
"I've been bragging about my teachers all day," said Sulphur Springs principal Christi Buell.
The state grading system takes into account how many students reach proficiency in core subjects, as well as annual improvement. It lends particular weight to improvements among the bottom quartile of students.
For the first time since 2006, no Hillsborough schools earned a failing grade, putting the district on track to potentially earn special privileges from the state, such as setting its own calendar to start the year earlier than other Florida districts.
As in previous years, the district and many schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires continuous gains in minority, low-income and special-needs groups.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district has long argued with the state over the cutoff lines between different scoring levels on the FCAT, which she said made it harder for high schools to show gains.
And changes next year will give more credit to districts like Hillsborough, which enroll large numbers of students in advanced placement, International Baccalaureate and other college-level programs, she said.
"Overall, we've made great improvements, and we're targeting schools that need to make further improvements," Elia said.
One school that got such targeting this year was the USF/Patel Partnership elementary school. The former charter school jumped to an A from an F, less than a year after the district assumed control of its staff and programs.
Sulphur Springs got similar assistance, with extra funding for academic programs before and after school, Buell said. Around 92 percent of its students are considered low-income.
The school also strengthened its partnership with the YMCA, with free on-site after-school programs that helped lure kids into staying for extra help.
"We'll get you the help you need for reading, and then you go to the YMCA," Buell said.
A third Hillsborough school on the state's watch list, Middleton High, improved its FCAT score this year by 5 points. But that wasn't enough, as the school got its sixth straight D grade.
Principal Carl Green said Middleton has fought hard for every point. "If you ask me, I'm very pleased with our reading scores," he said. "But we still have improvements to make."
Fifty-three percent of the school's bottom quarter of students made gains in reading, up 10 points from last year. In math, that figure dropped 2 points to 69 percent.
Elia said it was too soon to tell whether the district would make any changes at Middleton for this fall.
"We're looking teacher by teacher. And in some of those categories, they made a great improvement," she said.
And the high school news wasn't all dire. Two schools, Newsome and Sickles, earned their second straight A grades.