Hillsborough says the number of D and F schools is down 82%. It’s not.

Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | October 27, 2022

Messaging on the district’s most struggling schools has been unclear.

As the Hillsborough County school district works to highlight its successes, recently boasting a “steady rise in student achievement” since 2020, its message on a key statistic has been confusing.

The district announced Oct. 5 that, with superintendent Addison Davis leading the way, the number of D- and F-graded schools has decreased by 82%, “going from 28 schools to 5 in a two-year span.”

In reality, the state lists 14 Hillsborough district-run schools with D or F grades, not 5. The same was true in 2021.

The confusion arises because the district is citing numbers about a subset of “transformation” schools that get extra attention and resources. But its statements don’t make that distinction clear, with the result that the district’s overall numbers appear better than they are.

Other parts of the upbeat narrative are accurate. The number of D and F schools dropped in half between 2019 and 2021 despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. Some schools improved dramatically under Davis, who arrived in 2020; and Shaylia McRae, head of the Transformation Network, a group of “chronically challenged” schools where the district is trying new approaches.

Oak Park Elementary, which carried an F for years and faced possible state closure, is now a B school. Thonotosassa Elementary is an A school for the first time since 2001.

Oak Park Elementary in East Tampa has a successful turnaround story, going from a chronic F school to one with a B.
Oak Park Elementary in East Tampa has a successful turnaround story, going from a chronic F school to one with a B. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

But while 11 Hillsborough schools left the D and F list this year, another 11 were added, leaving the total number unchanged.

The Oct. 5 news release was not the first time the district described a lower number of struggling schools, nor was it the last.

Davis, in a self-evaluation for his School Board review, wrote in August that his team “decreased the number of historically under-performing D and F schools from 28 to 5.”

He used the word “historically,” as he takes pride in having achieved change at schools with multiple years of struggle.

Then on Oct. 20, McRae appeared before the State Board of Education in Orlando. She told the board that in 2020, “we started with 28 D and F schools,”meaning 24 D schools and four F’s. “We are down to one F. We are down to five D’s of the 24.

She used the phrase “of the 24″ to qualify her statement. It’s unclear why she described six D and F schools while Davis mentioned five.

School grades often move up and down, as the state formula rewards gains that might not be repeated in the following year.

Smaller schools find themselves at another disadvantage. They might not have enough students to show growth in the lowest performing quartile — another piece of the grading formula. That is a likely factor at Just Elementary, an F school with 280 students, McRae told the State Board.

No matter how the numbers are stated, the last two years have been a time of progress for Hillsborough schools that serve poor and marginalized communities.

New systems are in place to teach reading more consistently, get parents more engaged, and interact with students in a non-threatening manner. A “Transformation Fellowship” program is bringing in college students as tutors and mentors.

The district’s state ranking, using the school grade formula, has risen from 35 to 19 — the highest ever, Davis noted in his evaluation.

With those and other successes, why would the district issue confusing statements about the numbers?

When questioned this week, district leaders expressed surprise and said their statements were not at all misleading.

They said McRae’s comments to the State Board were strictly about the schools in her Transformation Network, which is why she focused only on those in the original group of 28 — much as Davis did.

Davis also predicted that, through the district’s work, the new D schools will leave the list soon.

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