TAMPA — Some schools in Hillsborough County will have buzzers and cameras when classes resume on Tuesday.
Color-coded trays will help kids plan a nutritionally balanced lunch.
And, despite controversy about high-stakes testing, the district can boast of impressive results, from the third-grade FCAT to Advanced Placement tests that measure students' grasp of college material.
"Our students do better in high school when they are prepared in elementary and middle school," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said at a back-to-school news conference Friday at Graham Elementary School. "We are challenging our students, and they are meeting that challenge, and they are being successful."
To an audience that included School Board members and administrators, Elia recounted high points of the previous year.
Among them: Sixty-two National Merit semifinalists were named. Sixty percent of elementary and middle schools earned A's or B's despite tougher standards.
In addition to rigorous use of the Advanced Placement program, in which students can get college credit for work they do in high school, the district continues to offer more industry certification programs that prepare students for the workplace.
While Elia was not able to put a security officer in each elementary school, as she had proposed in January, the district is making $1.6 million in security improvements to campuses that were considered too open. That effort is 85 percent complete, she said.
"We want our schools to be friendly places, but we also want our schools to be safe," she said.
For her annual address, Elia chose Graham, a high-poverty school that raised its state grade from a D to a B this year.
She recognized Marilyn Hoenge, a veteran teacher who joined Graham last year and saw her students make 83 percent learning gains. And she sat with three students to get their take on a new lunchroom tray that uses a color-coded design to help them select balanced meals.
"What do I think about this tray? It's perfect," said Daniel Perez-Rivera Jr., 10.
Away from the cameras, Elia advocated this year for improvements in the state's system of determining school grades. Along with other superintendents, she challenged the method of calculating growth scores and argued for a cushion that prevented grades from falling more than one letter.
Despite those efforts, four district-run schools got F's. When asked Friday about the value of these grades, Elia said they should be viewed with caution.
"To say that the letter grade automatically means that a school is a good school or not is not a fair understanding of how that school is doing, and how much work is being done to support students," she said.
But she stopped short of condemning the practice, calling instead for better oversight of the process. "I believe that Florida has been a leader in accountability and we need to remain a leader in accountability," she said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]