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Hillsborough County Public Schools rise to 'Top 20' status in Florida

A man in jeans and a blue dress shirt shakes hands with and accepts a gift from a bald man in a suit. In front of them is a podium and behind them is a row of people clapping.
Jack Prator
WUSF Public Media
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis (right) congratulates Thonotosassa Elementary School Principal Anthony Montoto (left) on raising his school's grade from a 'C' to an 'A.'

In 2019, there were 28 Hillsborough schools with D or F grades. Now, that number is down to five.

Hillsborough County Public Schools is now ranked 19th among the state's 73 school districts.

Florida uses an 'A' through 'F' system to grade its schools. At a press conference Monday, Hillsborough County district officials commended 11 of its schools for improving from a 'D' grade since 2019 — the last year grades were issued.

With the improvement, 96% of Hillsborough schools are now ranked at 'C' or higher.

Superintendent Addison Davis said this milestone was reached in spite of a teacher shortage.

"We are working every single day to be able to fill the positions,” he said. “One of the first questions that I walked in to ask our schools, ‘What can we do differently to be able to help you? Where do you sit with your vacancies?’"

The district is still working to fill about 700 instructor vacancies and 150 bus driving jobs.

“We are looking at support staff to be able to help them transition to a certified teacher, looking at individuals that are potentially retiring and asking the state to potentially waive their requirements to be able to come back immediately,” he said. “We're doing a number of job fairs that we continue to offer.”

Davis gathered with principals across Hillsborough at Thonotosassa Elementary School Monday, a school that showed one of the biggest improvements in the county.

“I was asked this weekend, how do you go from a ‘C,’ to an ‘A?’” Principal Anthony Montoto said. “It's a work in progress — this has been a process of over three years. And it's baby steps. And it's a lot of relationship building with our students. We take very great pride in getting to know our students.”

During the pandemic, the Hillsborough County School District was one of twelve that defied Governor Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.

Last month, DeSantis reversed course on the Legislature's efforts to withhold these districts' share of $200 million in state "recognition" funds.

Davis said this was the right decision.

"We have to be able to be partners together to identify what's working, what's not and what we can do differently every single day,” he said. “We're working to be able to build greater, stronger relationships that put Hillsborough County in the forefront of being a model."

The superintendent also thanked community leaders for standing up to Tallahassee. School Board chairperson Nadia Combs reached out to the governor’s office after DeSantis announced the 12 affected districts would receive the recognition funds.

“At the end of the day, it's about children,” she said. “And the more that we put into our students to prepare them academically for life, the better our community is going to be, the safer we're going to be, the more jobs and more opportunities and the better it is going to be for Hillsborough County schools.”

In 2019, there were 28 Hillsborough schools with 'D' or 'F' grades. Now, that number is down to five. Davis said a continuing goal is helping these remaining schools improve.

"We want to be on a speedboat and everybody tells you, 'Addison, you can't do it.' But we're gonna get there as fast as we can," Davis said.

He said Hillsborough has now set its sights on becoming a Top 10 district in Florida.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.