1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough takes heart from a new number: More kids were prepared for kindergarten this year.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County educators are pointing to a significant upturn in the number of kids who showed up for kindergarten this year ready to learn, a key indicator that bodes well for students as they move through the public school system.

Fifty percent were deemed kindergarten-ready, up from 46 percent last year after being given the I-Ready kindergarten assessment.

"That's a good jump, because we've been flat-lining or even dropping a little bit over the last three years," superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday.

Results are not yet available from the state's STAR assessment. But district leaders, who have been purchasing I-Ready products from Curriculum Associates for several years, consider the tests reliable.

The increase happened even before the school system saw the effects of steps taken this year to expand early childhood education offered in the schools. About 350 additional preschoolers are in schools that have extra space.

Eakins gave credit for the improvement to a number of organizations he has worked with in the last two years, including the Hillsborough County Children's Board, Head Start, Healthy Choice, Hillsborough Community College and the Early Childhood Coalition.

Collectively, he said, the groups have offered training to preschool teachers and, in the case of Healthy Choice, counseled and advised new parents.

"I am thrilled," said Children's Board executive director Kelley Parris, who learned the news last week.

Kindergarten readiness is considered an important first step in the district's efforts to improve reading proficiency, an area where it has lagged. Hillsborough typically leads the state in the number of schools on Florida's "lowest 300" list of elementary schools, based on reading scores. By that measure, it falls below larger urban school systems such as Broward and Dade that it would be expected to out-perform.

"It comes down to letters, sounds and concepts of print," Eakins said, referring to what kindergarten students need to grasp. "Those are really some of the things that are key components. And so we really think that we can set a pretty aggressive bar if we know all of our partners out there are working around these same kinds of skills."

The district plans to expand school-based preschool offerings in the coming years, and Eakins said some principals have told them they welcome the new classes.

"It's basically schools that have the space and thinking strategically, where we have some deserts in early childhood," he said. "We can map out where our private providers are and where they're not. And if we have a lot of areas where there are not a lot of private providers, those are areas that we want to target within our school district."

Separately, but related to the preschool efforts, a task force is looking at literacy with the goal of enabling all students to read at grade level by the third grade.

The most recent Florida Standards Assessment results showed 53 percent of Hillsborough students were at grade level, a point below the state average of 54. In third grade, the first year tested, Hillsborough had 53 percent at grade level and the state had 57.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.