At a time when the economy is sluggish, testing scores controversial and teacher morale low, the Hillsborough County School District is holding its own, according to Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
Elia and Hillsborough County School Board members were on hand Aug. 17 for the annual back-to-school news conference at the Rampello Downtown Partnership K-8 School in downtown Tampa.
With FCAT testing mired in controversy, Elia said the school district is looking at the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation's report card, to determine how Hillsborough County students are doing.
"We've been gratified with the results," said Elia. "Our fourth-grade students had the highest reading scores of any large urban school district. And our eighth grade is in a statistical tie with Boston for second best scores in math."
However, she conceded that the school district has some challenges ahead as the state transitions from FCAT testing to a new national assessment system, called the Common Core Assessment, in the next two years.
The transition comes on the heels of a public outcry in May over declining student test scores after state education officials made changes to the 15-year-old FCAT testing system, including stricter scoring on the writing exam.
The scores dropped so dramatically in one year that state officials decided to lower the test's passing mark to protect school grades.
As a result, the Florida Department of Education agreed to phase out FCAT and replace it with the Common Core Assessment currently adopted by 46 states.
According to the Huffington Post, Common Core Assessment was developed through a collaboration of governors, state schools’ chiefs and Gates Foundation funding. It emphasizes teaching fewer things in greater depth. The tests themselves are still in development and are scheduled to be operational by 2014-15.
"FCAT is not the be-all and end-all to testing," said Elia.
In the meantime, the school district is proceeding with programs designed to ensure that Hillsborough County's students are competitive with students throughout the county.
Elia told the media that a new program called Xbox Kinect is being introduced at several county schools this year.
Bennett Smith, a physical education teacher at Just Elementary School, is among the educators that will use the motion-sensing gaming device to educate students.
"It really gets students excited about learning," he said. "They stand in front of a camera and become an avatar, interacting to solve math problems."
In addition, 500 Hillsborough County teachers recently received training from Microsoft as part of a new partnership with the software giant.
Elia said 57 Hillsborough County schools (27 high schools and 18 middle schools) will offer Microsoft IT academies in which students will be certified in a variety of software programs including Word, Power Point, Excel and Outlook. Offered as a STEM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) elective for students, the IT Academy is a college- and career-ready education program designed to provide students with technology skills necessary to gain industry-recognized certifications to be competitive in today's rapidly evolving workplace.
"The Microsoft IT Academy fits perfectly with our goal of preparing our students for careers in the 21st century,'' said Elia."This is a wonderful partnership that will benefit our teachers and our students, and I'm grateful to Microsoft for their commitment."
As for preparing for the Aug. 27-30 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Elia said the district has been hard at work to ensure the safety of students.
In addition to early starts for some downtown schools, the school district will place security personnel on all buses in downtown, Harbour Island and Davis Islands schools and will change bus routes to avoid RNC traffic.
In addition, the school district will relocate administrative staff to outlying facilities.
"We've been working with law enforcement for more than a year in preparation for the RNC," she said. "Our major challenge is communicating with parents about any changes during the RNC, and we'll be doing this Parent Link phone notifications, through Twitter, Facebook and our website."
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