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Middleton High becomes national example on reforming failing schools

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Published:   |   Updated: September 12, 2013 at 03:19 PM

Middleton High School once was on academic life support following a string of six consecutive state-issued “D” grades. Now the school’s principal and two students are about to participate in a national conference focused on turning around failing schools.

The high school’s latest grade is a “B”, and Principal Owen Young says Middleton’s failing grades are a thing of the past.

“We will never be a “D” school again,” he said. “Middleton is moving toward becoming a model for the country. That’s partly why Middleton was chosen (for the conference).”

Middleton was the only Florida school among more than 20 schools selected to send participants to “The Convening” conference in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24.

Senior Ervin Harris, 18, will be one of four students in a panel discussion with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Senior Ja’von Nelson, 17, will represent Middleton in a series of break-out discussions on topics such as bringing students, families and the community together and how to make the best use of learning time.

Harris and Nelson began at Middleton as freshmen. Middleton is a magnet school offering “STEM” courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Students used to be not happy at going to Middleton,” said Harris. “Now there’s a burst of pride about being a Middleton Tiger.”

The shift has been the result of a commitment from students and faculty, a change in student behavior and reaching out to the community, Nelson and Harris said.

“It’s kind of like a hand-in-hand thing,” said Nelson. Students are getting help and “more are trying to make a change.”

The school’s prior failing grades landed Middleton on the state’s intervention list in 2008. It came under intense state monitoring and received grants to tackle its problems.

Some teachers were reassigned, and reading and math specialists were hired. The school adopted “modified-block” class schedules that lengthen instruction time to 95 minutes per class. More modest changes were encouraged with events such “Dress for Success” Wednesdays.

Among the school’s stand-out achievements in recent years has been its robotics teams, which have racked up awards in local, state and world competitions.

The school received grants to help spur its comeback, but Young said money alone can’t be the solution. It took all of the community’s stakeholders becoming involved in Middleton to get things turned around, he said.

Now the goal is to sustain the school’s progress. “Best practices must become a way of life not something supported by a grant,” Young said.

The trip to Washington, D.C. will be a first for Harris and Nelson.

Looking ahead, both said they plan to attend college.

Harris said his goal is to earn a degree in political science. Colleges on his radar include the University of Florida, St. John’s University in New York and Harvard University in Massachusetts. “I want to serve the community any way I can through politics,” Harris said.

He is active with his church and community service.

Nelson wants to become a therapist or counselor and is considering Florida State University, University of Central Florida and University of Miami. He is captain of the school’s football, wrestling, and track and field teams. He also volunteers in the community.

“I like helping people,” Harris said.

ksteele@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7652

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