A survey released today that ranks Hillsborough County as a top-rated urban school district reflects the good work being done in the country’s eighth-largest school system. Students are outperforming many of their peers across the nation, resulting in an emerging workforce that is better prepared to compete and attract higher paying jobs to the region. The district needs to reinforce this performance with a strategy for stabilizing its finances. Hillsborough will need to keep its academic offerings and campus infrastructure in top shape if it hopes to sustain these achievements.
Hillsborough fourth-graders tied for first place among large school districts nationally in reading and math, while eighth-graders tied for first in reading and second place in math. The results, announced today by the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for analyzing education-related data, is part of a national initiative known as "The Nation’s Report Card." Students from 27 large school districts, including San Diego, Boston, Los Angeles, Houston and others, took part in what communities use as a tool for comparing their students with peers across the country. In an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times, Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins said the results were a "win" for the community, and he credited the district’s classroom teachers and academic support programs for preparing students.
"These kids are going to be highly competitive for jobs when they graduate," Eakins said.
Hillsborough business leaders also hailed the results, saying they pointed to an edge for the bay area in its efforts to attract quality employers. They noted Tampa’s appeal as a destination for digital-savvy millennials, and healthy job growth in the fields of STEM industries — science, technology, engineering and math. New employers want a premium workforce, and Craig J. Richard, chief executive of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, said the results show "highly skilled talent and a robust pipeline of well-educated students coming from our local K-12 and higher education systems."
Some skeptics of the rankings suggest the national comparisons are skewed because Hillsborough does not have the same concentrations of poverty as other large, urban districts, which can pose greater challenges to the learning environment. But that should not detract from the value of a nationwide snapshot that examines Hillsborough’s performance with similar-sized districts. Every community has its own characteristics. These rankings provide one of many windows for urban counties as they explore how to raise academics in the formative years as children move toward college and the workforce.
As excited as local officials are with the rankings, Hillsborough faces serious challenges in the years ahead in finding adequate financial resources. Facing a multibillion dollar price tag for unmet maintenance needs and new school construction, the district will need to convince the public it is taking all steps possible to comb through its programs and consolidate facilities to channel more money to the classroom. School Board elections this year are an opportunity for voters to assess where the district is going, how nimbly it is reacting to financial pressures and how committed board members are to making the difficult decisions to ensure long-term success in the classroom. Today’s news is a welcome step in that debate and a reminder of how a school district’s impact goes far beyond each campus.