TAMPA — It may have been the weather, it may have been the 9 a.m. start time, or it may have been the fact that things at Middleton High School have genuinely improved — but at a meeting held to update parents and alumni on the school's progress, only about 50 people attended.
And most of them had positive things to say.
In August, about 150 people attended a similar Hillsborough County School Board-hosted meeting about Middleton, which was struggling to break a string of D grades and cut down on fights that regularly broke out at dismissal time.
At that meeting, public comments lasted two hours. Attendees complained about the lack of values and parental involvement. They said the school was unsafe and that teachers didn't motivate students.
On Saturday, the group cheered new principal Owen Young, who took the reins this year. They noted the decreased need for police presence after school, and they commended the School Board for adding three bus routes to take students who live nearby home, so they're not on the streets fighting.
Pastor Clarence Nathan, a retired police chaplain, goes to Middleton every day as part of Pastors on Patrol, a group of pastors that focuses on community social issues. He says he has noticed a marked improvement.
Students are more respectful. They're careful to not walk on the grass. They pick up trash. Change hasn't been rapid, but it's happening, he said.
"Middleton is like an ocean liner," he said. "You can't turn it on a dime."
One parent at the meeting, Barbara Kennedy Gibson, said she's excited at the possibility her son might attend Middleton next year. His district school is Plant High, but this year the eighth-grader applied for Middleton's magnet program, which focuses on math, engineering and technology.
In preparation, Gibson has visited Middleton several times and even attended a baseball game to get a feel for the school. She says she has been impressed. The school's troubled past doesn't faze her.
"Every year, things have gotten better," she said.
The meeting was mostly dedicated to school superintendent MaryEllen Elia's presentation, which touted the school's awards, increased enrollment in advanced placement classes and new technology.
The school's alumni president, Calvin Simmons, said that information wasn't news to him. He and several other active alumni have meet twice with Elia since the August meeting to discuss how the school could improve.
He said one strategy has been to boost the school's image, making it someplace parents want to send their children. He said it's working, and Elia said enrollment is up by 200 students.
Simmons said he once did the opposite — he spoke out about the negative things he saw. At the August meeting, he came armed with a list of 10 specific recommendations alumni wanted the School Board to implement. But he says he only did that to motivate the board. He thinks it worked.
"Sometimes you have to rattle the cage," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.