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Thursday, Oct 19, 2017
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Eakins turning Hillsborough schools upside down

One of Jeff Eakins’ first actions as acting superintendent of Hillsborough County schools was to introduce a new organizational chart. Please, don’t stop reading.

I know org charts are terminally boring, but hang with me. Considering the events that led Eakins to rise from deputy superintendent, changes clearly needed to be made around the county school house.

So, here’s what he did.

“We literally flipped the organization chart over,” he said. “Now, the kids are on top and everything else is under them. We have to visually do that in order to get the message across about servant leadership. It’s not about power. It’s not about authority. It’s about serving.

“We talk about balancing the head and the heart. Leadership needs to be from the heart, and when you start with that foundation you can build a stronger structure.”

If you’ve spent much time in the corporate world, you probably had some leaders who said essentially the same thing. Maybe they meant it, maybe they didn’t. The test of Eakins’ time at the top — er, the bottom — of the school structure will be in how well he gets that message across.

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He will start by being his own man. Take the issue of armed guards in all Hillsborough elementary schools. Former superintendent MaryEllen Elia was in favor of that, but when the issue comes before the board later this year, Eakins said, “That is something I won’t be opting for.”

He will, however, concentrate on improving the district’s graduation rates. To do that, he will start with the basic culture. Employees spoke of being intimidated by supervisors and top officials if they came forward with complaints. I heard from many teachers with the same issue.

Eakins said they can now speak without fear of reprisals.

The school board is expected to take up the issue of giving Eakins a contract and removing the word “acting” from his title at Tuesday’s meeting. It’s a chance for the board to close a volatile period in its history.

Although Elia was highly acclaimed and had plenty of support from staff, teachers, business leaders and politicians, board members voted 4-3 in January to fire her because of long-simmering friction over the way she ran the system.

There were plenty of complaints about her style — dictatorial, autocratic, and dismissive at times, an attitude that filtered down to some of her high-ranking staff members.

Eakins has made it clear that won’t tolerated.

“We will deal with the board in a collaborative way,” he said. “We will deal with leadership in a collaborate way. We will talk with the business community about their expectations for Hillsborough County schools. We all have to establish our roles because our kids are their future employees.”

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Elia’s commanding presence basically gave her center stage of any room she entered. By comparison, Eakins is low-key. He will soon turn 50, but he looks at least 10 years younger.

He is a workout warrior. Maybe that explains the youthful look.

He played basketball and golf at Upper Scioto Valley High School in small-town Ohio before graduating from Ohio State. He brings those small-town values to this job.

He wants to tape all high school graduation ceremonies, and then compile scenes that show excitement and achievement. The film will be required viewing for each school employee to, in his words, “Understand our role in the student’s success, and to celebrate that with them.”

There will be new tape each year, so the exercise doesn’t get stale.

“If we want fulfillment as educators, we have to remember what brought us to this in the first place,” he said.

That’s a full plate. But it’s also just what the district needs as it moves forward from the controversies surrounding the end of Elia’s term.

“I’ve asked a lot of staff members how they feel about Jeff,” board member April Griffin said. “They are excited. They are happy. They are hopeful.”

We are talking about Hillsborough County schools, right? That kind of attitude is revolutionary. It’s, well, upside down.

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