TAMPA — Encouraged by rising high school graduation rates, Hillsborough County School District leaders have turned their focus to the younger years — in some cases, younger than kindergarten.
At a School Board workshop Tuesday, Superintendent Jeff Eakins and his senior staff described goals and efforts aimed at kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency by grade three.
"It's not enough to be about finishing strong at graduation," Eakins told the board. "It's about starting strong."
The graduation rate rose over the last three years from 73.5 to 82.9 percent, and district leaders are optimistic about another increase when the 2018 results are released. Eakins has pledged to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by the year 2020.
But much of that improvement happened because high schools got better at helping students recover missing credits and pass tests they can substitute for the 10th grade Florida Standards Assessment in English language arts, a graduation requirement.
True progress, officials said, will happen if students can get on track and stay on track in the early years.
Eakins' administration has been working for the last two years to get more students into quality preschools. The district added nearly 400 slots this year in its elementary schools and is working with outside organizations such as the Children's Board of Hillsborough County to give teacher training to private providers.
But the percentage of third graders with a passing score on the FSA went in the opposite direction, from 56 to 53 percent. The privately purchased i-Ready test, which was given in the first quarter of this school year, mirrored those results, with the passing rate dropping from 53 to 49 percent.
A district task force, headed by Chief Academic Officer Deborah Cook, has been examining the causes of Hillsborough's low reading levels, and exploring solutions. "Literacy is really the gateway to all learning," Cook said Tuesday.
Eakins' team announced identical goals for kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency: 80 percent by the year 2023.
The workshop, which also updated the board on the Achievement schools initiative, was largely a tutorial for three newer board members about the district's strategic planning methods.
Board members were receptive, although some expressed concerned about the schools' many teacher vacancies. At last count there were 367 advertised vacancies. Close to half were in the 50 Achievement schools, which serve disadvantaged communities and were supposed to get enhanced resources this year.
So many vacancies exist at four of the Achievement schools that more than a dozen senior administrators have signed up for part-time teaching shifts in January. Eakins said Tuesday that new teacher hiring for the coming year will begin in March, a full two months earlier than it has in the past.
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More first-quarter results were released to the board earlier in the month. Some high points:
Attendance, measured by the percent of students at school at least 90 percent of the time, is two points better than last year, at 87 percent. But it is still not the 90 percent that it was in the first quarter of 2016-17.
Behavior is flat across the three years, with 97 percent of students showing no suspensions.
Grade point averages fell in ninth grade, from 82 percent showing 2.0 or better to 79 percent.
A bright spot for graduation: More seniors have already met their English language arts and Algebra 1 requirements (81 percent for English, 94 percent for Algebra) than in the same quarter of 2017-18.
Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.