TAMPA — For the first time since it opened a decade ago as a technology magnet, Middleton High School has earned a B.
The call Thursday night from superintendent MaryEllen Elia delighted Owen Young, the school's data-driven principal.
Even more satisfying was the chance to announce the improved grade over the public address system on Friday morning. "It was a surreal, exciting, dynamic experience," he said. "This is the spark that the students need."
Throughout Hillsborough, high schools celebrated what arguably is their best collective report card since the state began awarding letter grades to hold them accountable for their work.
Thirteen of Hillsborough's 27 traditional high schools earned A's and 10 received B's, for a total of 85 percent with either A or B grades. There were four C's. No traditional high schools earned D or F grades.
Statewide, the number of high schools earning A grades rose by nearly a third, from 148 to 231.
"We're proud of our high school students, teachers and administrators," Elia said. "We have very high expectations and our students have shown that they are up to the task."
Robinson High School and Strawberry Crest High School, both with International Baccalaureate programs, each earned their first A grade.
"Our goal was to be an A school within three years and here we are," said David Brown, the principal of Strawberry Crest, which opened in 2009.
"We're going to celebrate today, and then we're going to get back to work in two weeks."
Many superintendents and principals had anticipated declining high school grades, as the state adopted a more rigorous federal graduation rate calculation and increased the passing scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The state also graded the FCAT writing exam more stringently, causing scores to plummet.
To cushion districts from the effects of those changes, the Florida Board of Education lowered the passing mark on writing this year to 3.0 from 4.0. It also decided that for 2011-12 only, no school could lose more than one letter grade.
And it set aside the rule from past years that schools would lose a grade if at least half of students in the lowest quartile did not make gains.
"This year's results reflect both higher standards and temporary safeguards the State Board of Education approved to help smooth the transition," said Pam Stewart, the state's interim education commissioner.
At Middleton, which serves a low-income community in east Tampa, the stakes were especially high.
Despite the existence of a successful engineering magnet program, the school is 88 percent minority and 79 percent low-income. An active alumni association, drawn from the years when schools were segregated, keeps close watch.
In 2009, after its sixth consecutive D, Elia hired Owen, who grew up in the community and was then an assistant principal at the school. The school was on a state intervention list at the time.
Under Young's leadership the school received a C in 2010, then dropped to a D in the first year of the tougher FCAT tests.
This year's B was fueled in part by sharp gains in reading and writing proficiency. There was also improvement in math and reading among the lowest-performing 25 percent of the school. And students took and passed Advanced Placement exams in greater numbers.
Young said he will continue to work on the graduation rate, which lags behind the district's other high schools.
And, looking to the future, he said he will continue to emphasize reading, critical writing and critical thinking for students at all levels.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.