Middleton High Struggles To Get School Spirit Back
TAMPA - George S. Middleton High School sits near the heart of a predominately black, East Tampa community, a state-of-the-art facility surrounded by churches, small neighborhood stores and public housing. It's an iconic symbol of the city's past and, for many people, far more than just a building. Middleton, an all-black school for nearly 40 years, represents the struggle alumni faced - and overcame - during segregation. And it's a source of pride for community leaders who fought to re-open the school in 2002, three decades after a federal court order locked its doors. Since then, however, Middleton has struggled to live up to its legacy.In late July, school district officials issued an ultimatum: Improve test scores and meet federal standards, or face possible closure. The announcement was a wake-up call to those who care most about Middleton: the neighborhood, the alumni association and many of the parents. And it prompted a flurry of activity. How these different groups respond will likely determine Middleton's fate: Work together to preserve the school, or do nothing and watch it fail. "It would be much easier for me to pull my kid out, ... but I truly believe that's where we belong," said Debbie Devine, whose son Nicolas is beginning his sophomore year. "There is absolutely no reason why this cannot become an A school. We all just have to buy into it. Why can't the community come together to do something good for the school?" 'A Community Thing' Middleton's alumni date back to 1934. Among their ranks are some of Tampa's most successful and well-known black leaders. It was one of two educational options for blacks at the time, and in a world of white-only privileges, Middleton was a tangible reminder of how little they could claim as their own. "Segregation forced us to take care of one another," said Fred Hearns, who graduated in 1966. But the Middleton that the alumni remember is much different from what exists today. Since 2002, they have watched it make headlines for the wrong reasons, drawing attention for issues such as after-school fights and campus vandalism. It bothers some of the alumni because such things were never a problem before. The neighborhood felt a part of the school and wanted it to succeed. And the students respected it too much to damage it. "We policed ourselves. Certain kids did something wrong, we took care of that," said Billy Reed, a 1949 graduate and former Middleton football coach. "It was more a community thing. If a girl was dating a guy and we didn't like him, he might date [her], but he's not coming into the neighborhood to see her." Back then, students were expected to excel in the classroom. If they were unable to read, they stood in a corner. "Stand in the corner long enough, you'll learn to read," Reed said. "Now they don't read at all." Some alumni fault the students and their parents for not knowing or appreciating Middleton's rich history. But the current students weren't born when Middleton closed in 1971 as a result of desegregation, and many of their parents are too young to remember or pass down what the school meant so many years ago. Bridging that gap between Middleton's two worlds - its past and its future - is the key to overcoming its present threat. "It all rests on understanding what Middleton stood for and stands for," said Doretha Edgecomb, a Hillsborough County School Board member and Class of 1960 graduate. Otherwise, the alumni and the community might lose Middleton again - this time for good. A Complex Problem It's not that students today don't appreciate Middleton. Many students go there by choice, seeking out magnet programs such as aerospace technology that aren't available at other schools. It's an impressive campus, similar to a college, with buildings spread among common areas. It's nationally known: Middleton's math team is ranked seventh in the country. And it's fun: Some students build robots as class projects. That's why news of its possible closure spread quickly through text messages, e-mail and Internet message boards. "I was honestly shocked," said Nicolas Rivera, 15, of Lutz. He chose Middleton because of its magnet engineering program. Now in his second year, Rivera said he doesn't want to change schools. He is active on campus, participating on the robotics team, performing in the school band and playing football. For a few weeks this summer, he thought he would have to say goodbye. "Me and my best friend were talking about alternate schools if it really did close," he said. It's difficult to understand how Middleton ranks among the lowest-performing schools in Florida. Overall, the student body is still predominately black at 65 percent, and many of the students live in the adjacent community, which ranks among Tampa's poorest. But about 450 of the 1,500 attendees are magnet students, meaning they had to apply to go to Middleton and can live anywhere in the county. Yet Middleton has struggled for five years to improve beyond a D grade on math and reading proficiency tests. The letter grade, which represents the school's overall performance, is assigned by the state. Middleton also receives federal funding, which requires the school to meet certain federal criteria. Failure to do so can result in sanctions. Middleton is one of 13 schools across Florida that has consistently missed the mark. Those schools must close if improvement isn't seen this school year. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district doesn't want to close Middleton. "Change and improvement is a process, not click a button and it's done," Elia said. "It's not a simple thing to look at and say why are they a D?" The school has shown improvement, she said. In 2007, Middleton scored 398, which is just three points above an F. In 2008, the score was 419 - just 16 points shy of a C. "We moved in the right direction," she said. "We have to show continuous growth." It's All About Reading The sign outside Middleton's auditorium reads C.O.O.L. It's colorful and catchy, sporting a tiger, which is Middleton's mascot. What the acronym stands for, though, is what matters - Concentrating On Our Literacy. It's all about reading at Middleton this year. It has to be if the school is to improve. "If we bring those marks up for reading and writing, we'll be a C, a B school," Principal Carl Green said. "Reading and writing is the thing that can really hold you back." Some students arrive at Middleton with a fifth-grade reading level, said Jim Gabriel, who teaches advanced placement biology, biology honors and zoology. "They're behind when they get here," Gabriel said. "It's so hard to get them up on reading and keep them going on everything else." To combat this, Middleton is trying to hire a reading consultant and a writing consultant to help augment after-school tutorial and reading programs, Green said. The school also offers Saturday sessions. The problem is few students show up. Administrators say parents might encourage their children to attend the tutorial sessions - if they knew about them. But getting parents to come to campus to learn what programs are available also is a challenge. In April, only about 15 parents attended a Saturday event featuring workshops on parenting, college resources, literacy and fitness. Green said he now schedules events at different hours - later at night or on the weekends - to try to accommodate parents who can't get time off otherwise. The strategy may be working - officials said new-student orientation, which didn't start until 7 p.m., had nearly twice the attendance as last year. Parent Sharlyn Harris, who attended the orientation, said she appreciated the change: "For my job, I have to ask for a day off a month in advance." Striving For Continuity Green greets everyone at Middleton with a fist bump. He prefers the gesture to a handshake. It puts people at ease and sets an example - disciplined, but fun. That's how he has tried to manage the campus. It's not an easy job. Green's first year began with a shooting during summer school, continued with a teacher sex scandal and ended with a massive fight at a senior outing. It would be enough to make anyone reconsider. Green toughed it out. He knows Middleton's progress has been hindered by a lack of continuity, which is crucial for a young school. He is the third principal since 2002. The old Middleton had just four principals in 37 years. Green, a native of South Carolina, knew little about Middleton before taking the job. His predecessors, Henry Washington and Jim Gatlin, were both alumni who were revered by the community. The school district promoted Washington to area director, and Gatlin died in August 2007 following complications from an illness. Green's faculty also has changed substantially. He hired 35 new teachers last year, many just out of college. About half aren't returning for a second year. Green said some of the newer teachers were unable to manage a classroom. He hired 20 new teachers this year. Combined, they average about seven years' prior classroom experience, he said. "I'm praying this year we don't have the distractions we had last year," he said, "and give teachers the chance to show their stuff." He has worked to instill pride by commissioning student art projects across the campus. He closed 19 portable classrooms to keep students from feeling isolated and set apart. He is trying to allow the new Middleton to carve out an identity. But he knows that a key to the school's survival likely rests within its past. Living And Breathing Middleton Hearns is trying to make a point about appreciating history. "Those kids need to know the school song!" he said. "We know the song." Hearns clears his throat and begins to softly sing: "Middleton, Middleton, school we love. True to you, we'll ever be." Nine other voices from around the table respond: "We thy faithful sons and daughters Pledge our loyalty." It's the monthly meeting of the Middleton alumni association, and school performance is on everyone's mind. Most everyone is clad in maroon and gold, the school colors, sitting in a small conference room at Tampa Police District 3 headquarters, blocks from the school. The alumni live and breathe Middleton in a way that is likely lost on today's students. The East Tampa neighborhood was still mostly low-income then, but "the stigma of living in the projects wasn't the same as it is today," Edgecomb said. "We were all the same. There weren't these divisions," she said. "We were all family, we were all neighbors, and we all went to the same school." Today, Middleton students have freedoms that the alumni never knew as teens. Segregation is a topic discussed in school, not around the dinner table. Today, children wander the streets without supervision. They leave school and go home to empty houses because their parents work more than one job. Many teens have only one parent. "This community has changed so much. They don't have the support system in place we did in the 1960s," said Hearns, one of the people who led the fight to re-open the school. "I think we can do a better job of that as alumni, instead of standing outside throwing rocks." School officials say that for the alumni to play an important role, they must first accept the school as it is today. "To see that the new Middleton is part of the legacy of the old Middleton," said Superintendent Elia. And then loosen their grip on the past. "We have to allow the kids who are here today to establish their own alumni, their own tradition, their own identity," Green said. "Even though you might want them to sing the alma mater, the kids have to embrace that." 'We Have To Love Them' The basketball court is soggy with puddles from a hard morning rain, but the grill is fired up and more than 50 alumni, parents, students and school officials are gathered at the HOPE Center across from Middleton High. It's Aug. 9, and school starts in about a week. The center, operated by Bible Truth Ministries, is a daily destination for some Middleton students when the school day ends. The acronym stands for Helping Our People Excel, and the center offers activities such as basketball, chess and checkers, as well as cooking and computer classes for both neighborhood youth and adults. It also has become the weekday hub for Pastors on Patrol, a group of church leaders who keep watch over the streets when school lets out. The pastors often walk students home to help them avoid getting in fights. This particular Saturday, the HOPE Center is hosting a community barbecue so alumni can try to recruit parents and residents to serve as tutors for the school year. Over barbecue chicken and burgers, the parents talk in small groups, reminiscing about the past and trying to predict the future. Some are critical of other parents who refuse to take an interest. "It seems like it is a typical belief of parents, they don't have the time or resources," said JoAnn Johnson, who has raised her grandson Marcus, now a sophomore, since birth. "That's such a cop-out." Others are more hopeful. "I think we'll be OK. I think it will all come together," said Cathy Arrington of Temple Terrace. Both she and her parents graduated from Middleton, and her son is starting his senior year. "I think we'll all work together to keep our school alive." By day's end, 20 people will volunteer to spend at least one hour a week helping a student learn to read or providing help with homework. "I grew up in a time when the whole neighborhood was involved in everybody's child," said Jeannette Williams, a Middleton graduate whose grandson is starting his sophomore year. "We were like a village." By volunteering to tutor, Williams is doing her part to ensure Middleton's survival. By sharing its history with a new generation, she is keeping its legacy alive. "They have young parents, some of them. They can't pass on what they don't know," Williams said. "At some point, we have to love them like we were loved. It's not going to be an easy thing. We have to love them enough to keep trying."
Reporter John W. Allman can be reached at (813) 259-7915 or [email protected]