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For seven struggling schools, Hillsborough selects the least disruptive turnaround option

By Marlene Sokol
OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Booker T. Washington Elementary is one of seven Hillsborough schools ordered to submit turnaround options in case they do not earn at least a C grade this school year.

TAMPA - Faced with four possible back-up plans for seven D and F schools, the Hillsborough County School District chose the least disruptive for all seven: Partnership with an outside consulting firm.

That means that if Potter, Booker T. Washington, Sheehy, Foster, Oak Park, Mort elementary or Memorial Middle School don't improve to at least a C this year, the district will call for assistance -- but will remain in charge.

Potter and Washington have F grades while the other five have D's.

The state, under House Bill 7069, ordered up these contingency plans for all schools in that predicament. Other, more drastic options included closing the schools or turning them over to charter companies,

Citing assistance it's getting from volunteer groups and corporations, the district put out a statement saying improvement is under way.

"We believe our schools will receive an A, B or C at the end of this year, but the state is requiring us to choose an option just in case," the statement said. "This option provides the most flexibility in supporting our schools with outside experts, while maintaining our public school district as full partners in the process."

District leaders put out this fact sheet to explain the process.

History suggests it's a heavy lift.

Potter is in its fifth year as an F school while at Washington, only three of last year's fifth graders tested on grade level in reading.

Both schools have relatively new principals who spent their first year on the job establishing routines and setting expectations. Both schools are predominantly African-American and Albert Fields, first vice president of the local NAACP, issued a statement that criticizes both the district and the state.

The state, he wrote, issued an order that "was mission impossible" for the district. "Sending such short notice to this district to shape up did not really mean shape up. It meant ship out your (school) funds to our corporate buddies that fund legislative campaigns and school board elections. Despicable."

Fields also attacked the district's track record in staffing schools that are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic with lesser experienced teachers and administrators.

"There are successful teachers in the system that could help at these schools, but the superintendent has not shown the courage to deploy them to the most needed areas," he wrote. "The superintendent has shown more interest in keeping the CTA [teachers' union] content with status quo decisions."

The union has fought back against any plan to bypass the teacher contract, which protects teachers against involuntary transfers. District leaders, however, have vowed to find ways to attract top teachers at schools with the greatest needs.