TAMPA — Middleton High School gained a reprieve this week after the state Board of Education granted it another year to show progress under a turnaround plan.
The move followed a personal appeal by Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who traveled to Tallahassee on Tuesday to argue the school's case. Had she failed, the school could have faced closure or takeover by a charter or outside management firm.
Elia said Middleton has shown enough improvement to warrant another year under district supervision.
But she said the problem is larger than one school. Under the state's differentiated accountability program, schools that are truly failing are listed right along with improving schools on a state watch-list.
"Middleton was never an F," Elia said. "And right now, if you looked at Franklin Middle School, it has had a C for two years and it would be (at a higher level) if it was judged right now, and yet it's in Intervene status."
Since 2008, both Middleton and Franklin have been on the bottom-ranked "intervene" list under that system, which was launched two years ago to help struggling schools show improvement under federal guidelines. They were joined this fall by F-rated Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.
Elia said she asked the Board of Education to consider tweaking the program so that improving schools don't get wrongly labeled.
"I'm just saying we're doing really good work, and we have to continue that good work," she said. "But when staffs and schools are working hard, I don't think it's appropriate to categorize them as the worst school in the state. I think that's not true."
Middleton made some improvements on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this spring, such as sophomore reading, while other scores dropped. But principal Owen Young said the school also made gains among low-income and special-needs students, as well as those retaking the FCAT.
"We have seen some gains," Young said. "It's happening. It's just a process."
Department of Education officials said the differentiated accountability system was designed to be rigorous — hard to get into intervene status, and hard to get out. Such schools receive extra money for specialists, but must also follow state guidelines that typically include dismissal of ineffective teachers and administrators.
By making it hard for schools to leave intervene status, the state is "keeping our focus on them until they reach a point where their progress is stable and the risk of backward movement becomes minimal," said spokesman Tom Butler.
But some districts have asked the state to find ways of recognizing improvement among schools in the bottom category, he said. "We are taking those recommendations into consideration."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.