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Hillsborough hones school dropout prevention plan

Hillsborough County public high schools and many middle schools have a dropout prevention specialist whose job it is to focus on helping students who are struggling with academics and behavior.

Pending approval of the school board, those professionals could have a new title when they return to school in the fall — “student success specialist” — which district officials call a more positive approach.

The change is being proposed as part of a new “success program” that will put school-based teams of guidance counselors, success specialists, social workers and assistant principals in charge of all students who are judged to be at risk of dropping out.

The job title change is included in the reorganization and renaming of the Division of Instructional Support as the Division of Student Services, which is up for a vote at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

The school teams will identify at-risk students by poring over three years of student data to see which students are frequently missing school, acting out and struggling academically. The team will work to address these students’ needs and help them get back on track.

“The difficulty you sometimes have with this population is they fall through the cracks,” Superintendent of Schools MaryEllen Elia said. “They are going to own that group of kids. I think the whole concept of the team is going to help us a lot.”

It’s one way Hillsborough is addressing a national push for school districts to end apparent racial disparities in dealing with violations of school rules.

School district attorneys are in the process of gathering discipline numbers for the past three years and other school data to submit to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating the district.

The investigation comes on the heels of a complaint filed by community activist Marilyn Williams that alleges Hillsborough discriminates against black students by subjecting them to harsher discipline than white students.

In the 2011-12 school year, black students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, nationwide and locally.

Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin said launching the success program and changing the dropout prevention specialist title are positive steps but that more needs to be done.

“As long as the numbers are showing we’re losing kids, we’re not doing enough,” Griffin said. “We need to do better in this area.”

She would like to see the district hire more career specialists for high schools.

“I think we need to not overlook the career specialists we used to have in our schools that helped really guide students in that direction they needed to go,” she said.

Anne Chatfield, a dropout prevention specialist at Sligh Middle School, said she has not heard much about the new program or potential new title but that she would support the changes.

“If the board approves it, it sounds like a solid way of work,” she said. “As far as the name, I support that completely. That’s what we’re all about. It sounds very positive. I’m excited to learn more about it.”

Other ways the district has attempted to keep students learning and drive down discipline issues include letting parents opt to put them in a district program called ATOSS, or alternative to out-of-school-suspension. Instead of spending the day at home, students are placed at an off-campus center with a teacher where they do schoolwork.

Additionally, teachers who appear to be writing an inordinate amount of discipline referrals receive training on classroom management, Elia said.

Discipline data in Hillsborough shows a shift between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years Out-of-school suspensions of black students were cut nearly in half, from 4,000 to less than 2,000. For white students, the number decreased to less than 1,000, a 39 percent drop.

The school board meets at 3 p.m. Tuesday at 901 E. Kennedy Blvd.

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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