TAMPA — On a rainy Thursday afternoon, minutes before the end of the school day, a junior sat in Principal Kim Moore’s office at Middleton High School asking for help.
He only has eight credits and needs 24 to graduate next year. He could earn a certificate of completion with just 18, but only with hours of after-school tutoring and credit recovery courses.
Moore, scrolling through page after page of the student’s tardy and absent records, didn’t soft-pedal the situation — the boy has to come to class to get anywhere — but she didn’t leave it there, either.
“I don’t care what anyone told you in the past, you are worth something. You can graduate,” she said. “I know you’re smart enough. I see it.”
It’s a message administrators at the east Tampa high school have been delivering for decades, even as graduation rates sunk to the lowest of any of the two dozen traditional highs school in Hillsborough County.
But now, however faint, there are signs that the staff’s work at Middleton is beginning to turn things around. The school learned last month its graduation rate for 2014-2015 wasn’t dead last.
This time, the distinction goes to Armwood High School in Seffner — 64.5 percent compared to 65.7 percent at Middleton, the next worst.
Neither number is acceptable to anyone — far as they are from top schools like Plant and Newsome high at nearly 100 percent or the 90 percent goal set for the district by Superintendent Jeff Eakins or even the 76 percent districtwide average today.
The two schools have much in common.
Their principals are entering their third year on the job. Their attendance zones take in large swaths of poor neighborhoods so that at Middleton, 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, while at Armwood, it’s 77 percent.
Except for a lone B awarded to Middleton in 2012, both schools have earned nothing but D and C grades from the state Department of Education for the past 17 years. Both schools are expected to earn another C when school grades are released Feb. 9.
But the two schools also are heading in different directions.
Graduation rates at Middleton have been slowly increasing from a dismal 47.9 percent in the 2012-13 school year. From 2013-14 to last school year, Middleton’s graduation rate increased 8.4 percentage points — the biggest gain in the district. The last principal, in fact, was promoted into a job as district turnaround specialist.
At Armwood, it’s the opposite story. Rates are slowly dropping from a high of 73.2 percent in 2012-2013. Last year, Armwood was one of only three high schools where the graduation rate fell — and at 1.6 percent, it was by far the largest drop. School officials blame students’ dismal performance on the high-stakes state tests required for graduation.
Their trend lines, then, are intersecting — one on the way up, one on the way down.
Still, both schools consider themselves to be at the starting line. And in a broad sense, they share something else — a strategy to win this race that involves changing the culture of their schools, the lives of their students and the future of their communities.
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When Armwood High Principal Joe Castelli talks about the students in his charge, you can actually see goosebumps.
The reaction shows how far he has come since he arrived, yet another in a long succession of principals — three in 2013 alone — leading an increasingly skeptical school. “Some of the questions when I walked in the first time were, ‘How long are you going to be here?’— kids were saying that — so it was a tough crowd,” Castelli said. “The movement was all natural, and that course led me to here and I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I think the kids see that, and as soon as we built that trust, we were able to break down some of those walls and it was a different school.”
Now, when Castelli walks the hallways, he gets high-fives — partly for his recent decision to let students listen to music in the lunch room — and students yell out their destinations with a playful “don’t worry, it’s all good,” before he can urge them to class on time.
Close relationships developing between students and faculty have made the most difference, said Jacquez Lilite, a 16-year-old junior and offensive lineman on Armwood’s varsity football team.
“When I first got here, it was just football, football, football, but now grades are the main focus and there are more opportunities and classes,” Lilite said. “Kids help each other if they see someone in a bad situation or rushing to get their credits to graduate, and it’s like we’re all a big family here.”
Lilite is also vice president of a new club where upperclassmen mentor freshmen and sophomores who are considered at risk. The idea came from the students. They spent the first half of the year training with administrators on how to help their peers through some of the issues that could keep them from graduating, Castelli said.
The students also are offering peer tutoring at lunch, a more comfortable option for those turned off by traditional tutoring in the library. Friday also marked the first presentation by one student who was considered “at risk” for finishing school but who managed to turn things around.
The student, and more like him, will talk to others identified by success coaches and guidance counselors as struggling with tardies or absences, or challenged by academics or discipline issues.
“An adult can say something over and over again until they’re blue in the face, but as soon as a peer says it, it’s very, very powerful,” Castelli said. “More and more of those opportunities we’ve seen have been most effective in terms of getting students connected and getting them support.”
Middleton High is also experimenting with peer mentoring, for students in the National Honor Society. The school is also adding new clubs and classes to connect students to the school, from a barbering class to a construction class tied to engineering — its attraction as a magnet school.
The school day’s schedule is unique to Middleton, with students taking four 95-minute courses on “A days” and four different courses on “B days.” It allows students to take more classes than they would in a traditional school with seven class periods, which also allows more opportunities to earn course credits toward graduation.
On Mondays, during a 45-minute period, students do guidance activities such as graduation checks, hear presentations on safety and bullying, and work on writing assignments to strengthen skills.
“My freshman year I really didn’t like the programs, but this year we have better programs and better teachers,” 18-year-old Middleton senior Kushamaal Johnson-Franklin said. “We get more help when we need help and there are more people to help us after school.”
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This school year, teachers and administrators at the two schools have a new tool to keep students on track for graduation from the time they enter as freshmen. When Eakins became superintendent in July, officials began looking into factors that contribute to graduation rates locally and nationwide.
The results form a kind of formula, continuously updated, to help schools identify students who might fall behind before they start falling, said Deputy Superintendent Van Ayres.
It’s described as the ABCs — attendance, behavior and course grades.
The school district’s study found that among students with at least a 90 percent attendance rate, those in school nine of 10 school days, the graduation rate was 86 percent. Among students with attendance rates less than 90 percent, the graduation rate was 53 percent.
Another key indicator is a student’s grade-point average at the end of the freshman year. If students have a GPA of 2.0 or higher, the graduation rate is 90 percent. For those lower than a 2.0 GPA the graduation rate is 48 percent. Once a student receives one suspension, the graduation rate drops from 86 percent to 67 percent. When a student receives two suspensions the graduation rate fell to only 64 percent, indicating that the first suspension is critical to success, Ayres said.
“What we have now is a tool, but it’s up to the schools to utilize it,” Ayres said. “The key is intervention; what are we doing for students as soon as they start to struggle.”
A computer program developed by the school district automatically updates the three “indicator” statistics for each student as the school year progresses, with those at risk highlighted in red for teachers or administrators.
The tracking starts well before high school, though. In the coming weeks, the school district will identify eight “at-risk” elementary and middle schools where the staff will “truly eliminate every barrier students are facing,” Eakins said.
As one school begins to show sustainable improvement, the district will replace it with a new school on the list until eventually all 150 schools are impacted.
“Graduation isn’t just a high school issue,” Eakins said. “The goal is to send more on-level engaged students to our high schools.”
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When Owen Young took over Middleton High in 2009, it had received its sixth consecutive “D” grade from the state and was facing state-mandated closure unless things changed.
One of his first orders of business was identifying what assets he could use to help put the historic school back on the right track. He found one in the school’s alumni. They began mentoring students and students began giving back to the community through efforts like a community cleanup.
“The community and the school are one and the same, and the community became proud of Middleton again,” Young said. “If the community respected the students the students felt they had a responsibility to act a certain way; there was no more fighting in the community. Then building up the school and the quality of learning became a discussion again in the community: How do we create a culture of caring that embraces every student that walks through our doors?”
Moore, who took over for Young in 2014 when Young was tapped to become the district’s area superintendent for priority schools, said she hopes to see students form their own identity at the school while still honoring its storied past.
This year, she’s starting to see it. The school year’s first pep rally showcased groups like Bollywood, salsa and hip-hop dancers alongside the traditional marching band and cheerleaders.
“For a student from east Tampa, they may have no clue what Bollywood is so we work to expose them to different things and give them a chance to explore talents,” Moore said.
In east Tampa, an area racked with violence and teen shootings last year, school officials have worked to transform the school into a safe haven where students can feel at home.
“Hopelessness cuts to the core,” Moore said. “We know students bring many different issues to school with them. We work very hard to create an environment where kids feel safe, and it’s hard to get our kids to leave sometimes after the day is over.”
Castelli said he would like to see more community involvement at Armwood, though the nationally known football powerhouse provides its own form of outreach. Part of his mission, he said, is creating that community with his students.
Castelli surveyed rows of collegiate banners hanging above Armwood High’s lunchroom as he talked with a student preparing to graduate from high school. When she was a sophomore, she got pregnant, and like so many others in her situation, graduation seemed impossible.
Then, she said, teachers began pushing her and — more importantly — worked to help keep her on track. She now plans to attend Hillsborough Community College for two years before studying physical therapy at the University of South Florida.
“All kids can learn, all kids want to learn, and maybe some kids have more walls up than others,” Castelli said. “But being patient can break through those walls. When they have the chance, they will exceed every expectation.”
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