Hillsborough’s new ‘Achievement Zone’ plan is rolled out to community leaders in Tampa

Published April 27 2018
Updated April 27 2018

TAMPA — Tricia McManus came to East Tampa with a message: We’re ready to bring equity to Hillsborough County’s schools.

Not equality, which would mean giving every school the exact same things, but equity, which gives every school what it needs so students, regardless of their circumstances, will have an equal shot at success.

"It’s time, not just to do more, but to do more right," McManus told more than 50 school and community leaders Thursday in an advisory session for the district’s new Achievement Zone.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: New Achievement Zone would lift struggling schools

McManus, assistant superintendent for educational leadership and professional development and a one-time principal of West Tampa’s Just Elementary School, was at the district training center to gather input for what will be a third attempt under the leadership of Superintendent Jeff Eakins to improve under-performing schools.

The first, called the Office of Priority Schools, never really got off the ground before Eakins decided his eight area superintendents should take charge of seven schools the priority office identified. They later were named Elevate schools.

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In his three years as superintendent, Eakins has developed systems to train and attract strong principals to schools with chronic poverty and poor test performance. And he decided it was best to coordinate the district’s efforts with the state’s school turnaround system to avoid disconnects and confusion.

Case in point: Seven schools — some but not all included in the priority list — could be turned over to an outside operator in July if they don’t improve from D and F grades to at least a C.

Will Eakins’ new initiative, which could encompass more than 50 schools including the seven in play, be the one that sticks?

McManus told the group there is research to back up the plan, and a good model in Miami-Dade County’s Education Transformation Office.

Some in the room were skeptical.

"We feel like we’ve been bamboozled and hoodwinked before when it comes to this school district," said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County Branch NAACP.

Lewis also said she fears minority children will be stigmatized by the "zone" label, which applies to grades and not geography.

Others wondered: Can the district afford this new venture, at a time when it cannot even afford to pay teachers their scheduled raises? Wouldn’t it require an increase in administrative staff?

McManus said the project will be cost-neutral. While the Achievement Zone will be large enough to require two area superintendents and two assistant directors, it will pull so many schools from other areas that some of those leaders can be "repurposed," or transferred.

Shaylia McRae, now the area superintendent in Ruskin with interim duties in East Tampa as well, told the group she will be an area superintendent for the Achievement Zone.

Principals around the room offered words of support.

Jake Russell, who was transferred in 2017 from suburban Sickles High School to the higher-poverty Chamberlain High, said he is getting the assistance he needs to make significant changes at his new school.

Jaime Gerding, who took over Booker T. Washington Elementary two years ago, said she has seen a change from the years when inner city schools were largely neglected.

"I’m not going to pretend it was easy in the first two years," she said. "I had to fight. But we are vocal and we are being listened to."

Jacqueline Haynes, the former principal of Blake High School and a principals’ coach, encouraged the group to give the project a chance.

"I’ve been in this district 34 years, working at Blake and having to beg for resources," Haynes said, "Our district is taking a bold step to do something right."

The advisory group, which also includes leaders of the teachers’ union, will likely meet monthly, McManus said. A School Board workshop on the plan is schedule May 8 and it will be presented formally at a board meeting May 15.

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