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Two Tampa schools celebrate write of passage

Top educators went to Sulphur Springs and Edison elementary schools on Monday to celebrate with fourth-graders who, with the stroke of their pencils, changed the fortunes of their schools.

Word came in around 10 a.m. that both schools were removed from the state's list of critically low performers because of high scores on a test called Florida Writes.

Edison joined the list for the first time this year.

Sulphur Springs had been on the list for three straight years; a fourth time could have meant a state takeover.

"You did it," Hillsborough school Superintendent Earl Lennard told students at Sulphur Springs' media center. "You did it the old-fashioned way. You worked for it."

Nine-year-old Richard Doby took the praise to heart.

"Almost everyone passed and we're not the lowest school no more," he said. "We blew them away."

At both schools, a third of the students needed to score at least a 3.0 out of a possible 6.0 on Florida Writes.

At Edison, 85 percent of the students met the benchmark, while Sulphur Springs came in at 77 percent, Lennard said.

Populations at both schools are at least 78 percent minority, and just about all the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty.

"Put the color barriers down, put the economic barriers down, we have proven that every child can learn if he or she is taught using whatever avenue is necessary," said Patti Henry, the writing specialist at Sulphur Springs.

She was part of what amounted to a district takeover last summer, when a new principal, Debra Arias, was named and all but three instructors opted to transfer to other schools.

Officials credit a longer school day, a summer session and about 50 new teachers who committed to stay at Sulphur Springs for at least two years.

They were told to throw away scripted lesson plans and tailor instruction to children's varied learning needs.

"We used to be known as a place where kids were let down, where they were shoved between the cracks and crevices," said Sulphur Springs parent Tammy Keiser.

"Now we're known as a school that can and will do it. We don't give up. We're a fighting school."

Jim Hamilton, who led the district shakeup of Sulphur Springs as the assistant superintendent for instruction, said every school can benefit from the lessons learned there.

"Whether I'm an educator at Plant High School in south Tampa, or at Benito Middle School in New Tampa, I guarantee you I would find things that were done at Sulphur Springs and Edison that would improve the performance at my school," said Hamilton, who now oversees construction.

Still, Florida Writes is just one assessment, a 45-minute effort to produce focused, organized writing with the basic elements of sound structure and grammar.

It is one of three measures used to qualify a school for the low-performing list. The others are the math and reading sections of the Stanford Achievement Test.

A school makes the list if a certain percentage of its students fail to register acceptable scores in all three subject areas for two consecutive years.

A school can get off the list when the benchmark score is reached in at least one of those areas.

Stanford Achievement Test scores are not yet official, but a preliminary analysis shows that both schools would have made it off the list, even without Florida Writes, said John Hildebrand, Hillsborough's director of testing.

"I'm elated, ecstatic, all of those things," said Edison principal Sylvia Hornsby. "We worked hard. We really did."