1. The Education Gradebook

Music, pirates and big goals as Hillsborough students return to school

TAMPA — They tumbled out of big yellow buses into buildings with high-buffed floors. Some were met with music. For others, the trip was a run through PTA tables and T-shirt sales.

Just less than 200,000 children in Hillsborough County returned to school on Tuesday.

"Have a great first day," superintendent Jeff Eakins said as he greeted students at his first stop, Sligh Middle School. He told a medical studies student who asked about her schedule: "I'll find someone who can help you."

The subdued atmosphere contrasted with the carnival-like air at nearby Sulphur Springs Elementary, where community organizations are rallying to provide after-school services.

"They're treating it like a real community event, which is as it should be," Eakins said as parents and children rushed to find classrooms and stock up on uniforms.

With the motto "Preparing students for life," the district's 30,000 employees welcomed students back in a variety of ways.

At Bellamy Elementary, teachers took their cue from the popular Dave Burgess book, Teach Like A Pirate, and dressed the part. "We go all out," said principal Francine Lazarus.

Closer into town, 150 children settled into a brand-new campus affiliated with the Metropolitan Ministries homeless shelter.

Students at Young Science Magnet Middle School were greeted with dance music and high fives by community leaders, including Tampa police Chief Eric Ward.

"You would have thought we were treating them like they were the president," Ward said. "And that means a lot to me."

At Greco Middle, history teacher Ryan Lynn still gets nervous addressing students on the first day, even after eight years.

"You want to let them know you're just like they are," he said. "You're a human being."

He told them, "You guys are in eighth grade now. You need to be on fleek," a slang term meaning on point or cool.

A handful of students laughed. Others just stared.

Buses ran late in the morning as the roads clogged with parents dropping off their children, and in the afternoon as schools checked to make sure kids got on the right buses.

Tuesday's attendance of 197,044 students was 3 percent higher than last year's first-day head count.

Eakins and the School Board have vowed this year to cut down on suspensions, help more students graduate and strengthen ties with local employers.

Spending is an issue, too, as the district tries to protect its reserves. And growth, particularly in southeast Hillsborough, will require decisions about construction and rezoning.

Eakins also is preparing to name "priority" schools in need of improvement. Sligh is first on the list. Shellie Blackwell-Green, the school's new principal, said she was honored by his visit.

"It's a privilege to be here and we're going to do really well," she said.

Michael J. Majchrowicz, Chelsea Tatham, Helen Anne Travis, Eric Vician and Kenya Woodard and contributed to this report.