Last school year, Hillsborough put itself on the national radar when it launched an ambitious effort funded by a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to revamp teacher evaluations.
The school district's willingness to tackle reforms has put it ahead of other districts scrambling to meet new mandates passed by lawmakers seeking to boost student achievement.
But the district of roughly 194,737 students and 254 schools is not immune to the challenges facing all Florida school districts: less funding for schools and teachers feeling under siege.
On Wednesday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia told Hillsborough's new teachers during an orientation that "some of the most important things we do in life don't get that kind of recognition in society."
As reforms continue, she urged teachers to remember their vital role. "You're the ones who are going to do, and try and show many of us the new things that can happen with kids," Elia said.
Then she left them with this thought: "The most important thing you do is bring success to our kids."
Here's a look at issues or new efforts by the district in the coming school year:
TEACHER EVALUATIONS: Hillsborough heads into its second year of its seven-year "Empowering Effective Teachers" grant. At stake: who earns tenure, wins a promotion or loses a job, and starting in 2013, how much teachers earn on a new salary scale, which is optional for veterans and mandatory for new hires.
Among the new experiences for the district's estimated 15,000 teachers evaluated last spring were observations by peer evaluators. Ratings by principals and evaluators will each count for 30 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation. Student test scores over a three-year period make up the remaining 40 percent, using a "value-added" calculation that compares predicted and actual student growth. Teachers will receive the first of those scores in September.
Overall, district officials expect more teachers to end up in lower categories compared with recent years, when 99.5 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory or better and one-third were called perfect. So far, the district has declined to release data that would show how teachers fared under the new system, but they say it is working as planned.
"You are part of what I think is a very important reform effort that will have national implications," Elia told new teachers last week. "Think that it's a tool to get better. … Wherever you are, you can always get better. And the kids in your classroom, no matter how smart they are, they can get better."
BUDGET CUTS: State funding for schools continues to shrink, and when lawmakers meet in January for the new legislative session, school leaders expect more bad news. So far, Hillsborough has not been forced to take some of the drastic measures other districts have to meet the bottom line. The district has a $1.68 billion operating budget.
Elia told teachers she hopes that will continue.
"We're working, our School Board is working very hard to support economic stability in Hillsborough County," she said. "We haven't laid off teachers, and we haven't gone to furloughs like many other districts."
"We know how important teachers are to our kids," Elia added.
NEW FOCUS: Starting this fall, two schools will serve only same-sex students, and two others will offer International Baccalaureate programs. This school year, Hillsborough County School Board members agreed to expand the IB program to Roland Park K-8 and Walker Middle, and turn two schools into single-gender ones. Franklin and Ferrell middle schools have been converted into an all-boys' and all-girls' school, respectively. Trial runs, in the form of same-sex classes in a handful of Hillsborough schools, have been popular among proponents. They cite research that shows that boys and girls learn better in different environments. Critics, however, say such segregation of students can be discriminatory because it's based on gender stereotypes. These changes are partly funded through a $11.5 million federal magnet school grant.
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol and Times correspondent Sylvia Lim contributed to this report.