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Hillsborough School Board: Change not fast enough at troubled schools

TAMPA — After years of poor state grades and low reading levels, School Board members on Thursday expressed impatience with superintendent Jeff Eakins’ long-term approach to improving struggling schools.

"I’m concerned when we say that we have been doing things, because the data doesn’t really show that," board member Tamara Shamburger said after a presentation by Eakins. Her central Tampa district covers some of the district’s poorest neighborhoods.

"These schools have been perpetually low performing for many, many years," she said.

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Lynn Gray asked if Eakins has considered that his methods of improvement might be flawed. "Whatever the heck we’re doing now, in many of the schools, it’s not working," she said.

Susan Valdes was the exception, defending Eakins’ record since he rose to leadership in 2015. "I have not seen such a laser-like focus on the work as in the last two and a half years," she said.

Melissa Snively, siding with the others, said that although it is good to have long-range plans, "when a man’s having a heart attack, you don’t tell him he needs to eat better. You have to give him CPR."

At issue are two distinct, but related sets of issues: The reality that children in dozens of Hillsborough schools are not mastering state standards or even learning how to read at grade level, and that the state’s accountability methods keep changing.

Seven Hillsborough schools must raise their grades to a C this year, or an outside consultant will be brought in for them in August. The district is on schedule to hire the outside manager at the board’s Feb. 20 meeting.

Seventeen more D-rated schools were thrown into turnaround plans because of last year’s sweeping state education bill, HB 7069. Without the bill’s passage, they would have had a year to develop their improvement plans, Eakins said.

At a state meeting in January, officials upbraided Eakins for moving too slowly to replace principals at three of the 17 schools, and teachers who — according to a state evaluation system — were considered unsatisfactory.

On top of that, the district has 10 D-rated schools that are in "monitoring" status.

Eakins has argued that the teachers are just fine, according to Hillsborough’s own evaluation system, which is both better and acceptable by the state for most purposes.

He said he shared the board members’ passion for equity and desire for improvement.

"I don’t think we’ve been waiting, ever," he said in response to a question from Gray.

"As much as I want to fix everything today," he said, "we have been trying to build a sustainable model, not a quick fix-it model."

That means everything from helping young children prepare for kindergarten to getting talented principals into high-needs schools.

Eakins ticked off statistics that have improved in the last two years, including higher graduation rates and a reduction in the number of D and F schools.

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Based on tests that have been administered so far this year, he said, "I really do believe that we are finally in a space in this district where every school has the potential to be a C or higher. Five years ago, I don’t think I could have talked to you with that confidence."

There was general agreement that, given the nature of the Legislature, school administration is a moving target. As disruptive as last year’s HB 7069 was, a massive education bill now moving through the Legislature is even more complex.

Member Cindy Stuart suggested that Hillsborough leaders get better at tracking these bills, for advocacy and planning purposes. In the case of HB 7069, she said, "we didn’t have to wait for the governor to sign it. We could have been on the forefront of this."

She also suggested that, just as charter schools must present their improvement plans to the board if they have a D or an F grade, district principals might be asked to do the same.

The board members seemed more agreeable after hearing from four area superintendents who explained how they are providing hands-on leadership.

This is a departure from the district’s old structure, in which area directors concerned themselves mostly with operational issues such as transportation and food service.

"We are looking very discretely, student by student," said Anna Brown, the area superintendent for north Hillsborough. In her visits, she said, a fifth-grade teacher who is struggling with math gets hands-on help from a math coach. Third-grade teachers, whose students are taking the Florida Standards Assessment for the first time this year, get to regroup their students in ways that make the most of their individual teaching strengths.

"Those types of CPR steps are happening in every single school," Brown said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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