Angela Vickers has one of the toughest jobs in the Hillsborough County School District.
She's principal of a middle school, arguably the hardest age to teach. And by state standards, hers is the lowest-performing among more than 200 schools.
But Vickers, 49, embraced the challenge when it was offered last year and, essentially, gives herself a pep talk when she walks through the door of Sligh Middle Magnet School.
"You have to stay lifted," she said. "You have to stay that way for the people you lead. You have to have a desire to want to make sure that whatever you do, it will be better than yesterday."
Sligh and Potter Elementary are two schools the state has targeted for turnarounds in Hillsborough. Potter made the list by earning D grades for three years. Sligh is the district's only F school.
Both drawing from high-poverty east Tampa neighborhoods, they join six turnaround schools in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
But while administrators in other districts publicly discuss options that include replacing principals and making all teachers re-apply for their jobs, Hillsborough is quietly pursuing plans that started long before orders came from Tallahassee.
The district identifies struggling schools well before the state does, assembling teams of specialists to support them.
"We've been doing this for years," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, most notably at Middleton High School in 2009.
The state wanted new leadership after nearly a succession of mostly D's. Instead of hiring from outside, Elia promoted assistant principal Owen Young. Like the others, Middleton serves an urban area where poverty is rampant.
Change took a few years, but now Middleton, which has a prestigious engineering magnet, is a B school. Young is especially proud of points the school got for improving test scores among the lowest-performing students.
Though a relatively high number of students leave without diplomas, Young is not discouraged. Consider where they began, he said. "We do make learning gains for the majority of our kids."
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Lessons learned at a high school do not always translate to the lower grades. But there are similarities in strategies the district has taken in Middleton, Sligh and Potter.
In all three there is an emphasis on what educators call "culture" and "climate." That means making sure the staff bring their "A" game and that their relationships with students are conducive to learning.
Vickers, at Sligh, hands out "positive referrals" every chance she gets. It's a twist on a disciplinary referral; the student is recognized for good work, with a call to the parent.
"I had to redo a project, but instead of having attitude, I just did it," Joann Joseph, 12, said when Vickers visited her class last week. An expanding high-five followed.
That's the warm-and-fuzzy side of turning a school around.
The other side — re-evaluating staff — is not as much fun. In recent years, two of Sligh's assistant principals and about 20 teachers have left.
For brand-new teachers — often disproportionately represented at high-poverty schools — the district provides on-site training and mentoring at both schools.
"It's a process," Sligh teacher Ciciler Russ said of the changes under Vickers, whom she praises. "When she came, she told those of us who stayed that she wanted all hands on deck, and that's my mind-set."
But not all are pleased. PTSA president Dorothy Kandl said it is disconcerting to see so many familiar teachers leave. The school has improved, she said, but "it will take time."
Kandl also was disappointed that Sligh disbanded its year-end carnival, an incentive for students to behave in the final weeks of school. But Vickers said the school is holding a number of awards ceremonies, and a talent show and dance on June 7.
This is not the first time the district has targeted Sligh for improvement.
Since 1997 there have been two federal magnet grants, one for a health studies program and another for Advanced Course Scholars, to prepare students for rigorous high school work.
But the district did not meet the stated goal of improving racial balance with these programs. Sligh is 5 percent white, reflecting demographics in the surrounding community.
"As the school continues to improve the climate, culture and academics, the magnet program will most likely begin to draw a more diverse population," said assistant superintendent Jeffrey Eakins. "This is what has occurred at Middleton."
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While Sligh falls neatly into the F category, Potter is on the bubble. Just two more points and it would have a "C." When school grades come out in summer, Potter could come off the state list.
Principal Kimberly Thompson is completing her third year, and the district is happy with her work. Like Vickers and Young, she focuses on the mind-set of her teachers.
"I'm looking for commitment," she said.
Applicants are asked what they would do if a child arrived distressed and distracted. The answer is not to hand him a worksheet, but to establish a relationship so that he'll confide in the teacher.
"Because whatever it is," until he deals with the issue, "he is not going to learn," Thompson said.
Student turnover is a huge issue. At one point, administrators realized close to half of the fifth-grade class had been in the school for less than a year. If a child leaves Potter and then returns, the school places him into his previous class.
"We want this to be a place where they feel loved," Thompson said.
Like Young, she believes in accepting the reality of children's circumstances and celebrating their progress even when they score below grade level. "That's not proficiency, but it's growth."
Beyond attentiveness and commitment, the district invests considerable resources in both Sligh and Potter.
Combined, they received more than $500,000 in federal funding this year under the Title I anti-poverty program, which helped them hire additional staff. Teachers get salary supplements that totaled more than $200,000.
At Potter, a Head Start program serves some 80 children, although many move on to other schools for kindergarten.
But the real difference can be seen in the late afternoon. The day extends until 5 p.m. at Potter, one of three "Ed-Venture" schools.
Taught by faculty, after-school workers and outside instructors, kids rotate through an array of activities, from guitar lessons to cheerleading and intramural sports.
There's an extra hour of daily reading, mandated by the state because of last year's FCAT scores. In the media center, students compete on computers in math games that generally are not available until middle school.
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State officials give Hillsborough considerable latitude with turnarounds, as it is a large district with a proven track record, said Sam Foerster, deputy chancellor for student achievement and school improvement.
So far, both schools are showing improvement on the FCAT. Potter saw an 8-point gain in third-grade reading and a 17-point rise in fourth-grade writing.
At Sligh, the percentage of satisfactory scores in eighth-grade writing rose from 37 to 59.
In addition to the two turnarounds, Hillsborough is monitoring about 35 other schools, Eakins said.
"We're always looking for the schools where the data is showing that they need additional resources or they need additional support, and they need it now."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]