TAMPA — Before you read a book, sometimes it helps to preview a book. Familiarize yourself with the topic. Look at the pictures.
"Find the word 'thug,' as it is used in a sentence," teacher Kimberlyn Bascom tells a group of high-schoolers who are reading about slain rapper Tupac Shakur.
"Tupac had 'thug life' tattooed on his stomach. … Now find a 'u' word in the book — 'urban.' "
Nearly 30 years as a teacher, Bascom has found her dream job — teaching kids at Middleton High School how to read.
"I can't save all of them," she confesses quietly. "But if I can save one … "
Bascom works among the two-thirds of Middleton students who don't enjoy the glory of the prize-winning robotics program, the side that struggles, the side that, by some accounts, is a perpetual disappointment.
Despite the success of a decade-old technology magnet, the school earned the district's only "D" grade among conventional high schools this year.
The grade, based on everything from graduation rates to Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, followed a "C" that was widely celebrated, coming after a stint on a state intervention list.
Test scores released this month are encouraging: The proficiency rate in 10th-grade reading, which had also lagged behind the district's other schools, jumped ahead of Leto, Chamberlain, and Spoto at 34 percent.
To principal Owen Young, the improvement validated years of hard work, from the hours he spends analyzing data to the patience of teachers such as Bascom.
"We meet the students where they are," he said.
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Just south of E Hillsborough Avenue, Middleton draws from some of Tampa's poorest and toughest neighborhoods.
Before the federal government ordered the district to integrate the schools, Middleton was all African-American and proud. There were teachers with doctorates. The community was close and the school was its hub.
"It was different," said parent outreach worker Rosemary Buchanan, who graduated in 1971. "Neighbors disciplined children. Teachers disciplined children."
Middleton closed that year as a high school. A rebuilt Middleton re-opened in 2002 to a changed city. Highway construction ravaged the black business corridors. Suburban sprawl lured away many upwardly mobile families.
And values changed.
"If my mom went to work at 5:30 in the morning, I knew I had to get up and get myself to school," said Buchanan, who is active in the alumni association. "Today mothers go to work and the kids stay in bed."
The disparity in skill levels, from traditional students who are years behind grade level to magnet students who are dual-enrolled at the University of South Florida, is staggering.
Magnet students go on to places like West Point and MIT, and one had a perfect SAT score this year.
But performance in the rest of the school is low enough to push graduation rates and FCAT scores at or near the bottom of the district.
"It's almost like having a family with several children," Young said. "You have one who's a Ph.D., one who is principal of a school, but there's one who hasn't achieved to that level yet. But the spotlight is on that one, and it's reflecting on the family as a whole."
Young, who grew up in east Tampa and moved back to the neighborhood after he was named principal in 2009, says the reasons why kids struggle are largely environmental.
Kids stay out until all hours instead of reading or doing homework, he said. Rap music, heard through earbuds, does little to build their vocabulary.
Some don't get a hot meal anywhere but school. Bascom, the reading teacher, keeps food in her classroom. "You don't know how many times a student will come in and say, 'Mrs. Bascom, do you have any food?' " she said.
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Young, a father of four, played football for Howard University and earned a master's degree before Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia tapped him to head Middleton's turnaround.
By most accounts he has improved discipline on campus. Crime might be rampant in the neighborhood, but at school there is an emphasis on order and zero tolerance for loitering.
Raising test scores, however, has been a challenge.
Local blogger and YouTube producer Al McCray publicly called for Young's removal over the "D" grade. Young was dismissive of the attack, pointing out that McCray doesn't even live in east Tampa.
Buchanan said the overall reaction in the community was far less harsh — but the "D" did not go unnoticed.
"People are concerned," she said. "They are concerned because they love the school dearly. They will not bash the school. But we are not afraid to say we need help."
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Young has made the rounds to churches and community organizations, hoping to engage leaders in dialogue about teen pregnancy and other issues that impede learning.
"The school is a microcosm of a greater community," he said. "But we are looking for the school to be the place where this miraculous teaching and learning is going to take place, without the support of those core values and the commitment from families and students."
In Bascom's classroom, the object is help kids read with confidence. Brandon Lopez, 16, said the class has helped him stay focused. "Before, I was struggling to stay on task," he said.
Tajahnek Randall, 15, also said she has benefitted from the class. But she has mixed feelings about Middleton. Some of the kids are too rough, she said. And the magnet program seems to get most of the accolades.
"Of the traditional kids," she said, "I think half of them come to school to learn and the other half just come."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.