TAMPA — They said it could be done, and they were right.
After two years of trying, Middleton High has succeeded in pulling itself off a short list of Florida's lowest-performing schools.
Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the state decision serves as confirmation that her district and school principal Owen Young are on the right track in boosting student achievement there.
"We're thrilled with Middleton," she said. "I just know the work we've done really justified this, and I'm so glad the state saw that."
But it wasn't easy.
Middleton was one of only seven "persistently lowest-performing schools" in Florida when the Department of Education unveiled the list in 2008. It had failed to earn a grade higher than D under the state accountability system, and solid majorities of the student body were failing to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in all subjects.
The state sent inspectors and demanded a top-to-bottom shake-up. The district responded by replacing the leadership team, transferring out struggling teachers and providing extra money for staff training and support.
By last year, many Middleton students were still struggling; just 22 percent passed the FCAT in reading, down 4 percentage points from the previous year.
But the state's new school grading formula gave Middleton a boost, lending more weight to accelerated coursework in the school's highly-regarded magnet program in math, science and technology. It qualified to leave the list by earning its first C grade and showing improvements among at-risk groups in both reading and math, said Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.
Elia said Middleton has been transformed. At Tuesday's School Board meeting, she praised students' record-breaking victory at a recent robotics championship — further evidence, she said, that the school is better than many outsiders realize.
"I think we get a very distorted view sometimes when we see a school appearing on a list," she said. "It doesn't really give a full picture."
Last summer Hillsborough officials railed at the continued inclusion of another of its schools on the list, Franklin Middle, even after it had earned two straight C grades. The state agreed to remove it after the district made plans to turn it into a single-gender academy for boys, effectively transforming it into a new school, Elia said.
Middleton's two years on the list prompted soul searching, long meetings and struggle. But Young, the school's principal, said he wasn't dwelling on the success of leaving it.
"It helped us to drill down and understand that kids weren't achieving, and that there were things that we had to do differently," Young said. "But we have a lot of work to do."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.