The Hillsborough County school system has failed hundreds of students at four low-performing elementary schools by moving too slowly to make changes, state officials said Wednesday in stern warnings to superintendent Jeff Eakins.
The superintendent squirmed uncomfortably as members of the Florida Board of Education said the district had not removed veteran principals in those schools as it had promised to do. The schools had received mostly D's and F's over the past three years.
The district also had allowed nine teachers with poor evaluations to remain in Dover, Mango, Palm River and Pizzo elementary schools, despite a district-written turnaround plan that the board approved in October.
"The plan we approved was based on understandings … that haven't been met," board member Tom Grady told Eakins. "That sounds like a break of a commitment made to the kids. We're talking about this year gone, if something isn't done today."
Others on the board, which has in the past two years pressured districts to change leadership at schools with persistently low state testing results, shared Grady's sense of outrage.
"My concern is for time," said chairwoman Marva Johnson, who attended Hillsborough County schools as a child.
"I have a great appreciation and respect for process," she continued, in a nod to Eakins' explanation that he was trying to develop system for long-term success in these schools. "But if I'm 9 years old, or 10 years old, I've got one year to learn third-grade math, or fourth-grade math. I don't get 18 months. … And if the person I've got in front of me is ineffective, it's just not fair."
Eakins attempted to defend the district's efforts during a nearly hourlong barrage that began with chancellor Hershel Lyons telling the board that despite years of D grades, these schools had principals who had been in place five years or longer.
The superintendent admitted off the bat that the district has lots of work to do to improve its lowest-scoring schools, which also are among those with the highest level of poverty among students. The need was evident, Eakins said, from the moment he took over the district two years ago.
"We needed to look at everything," he said. "We had to do a lot of triage."
Eight schools saw their leadership replaced. More than 20 teachers with needs improvement or unsatisfactory evaluation ratings were transferred to other positions, with some deciding to resign.
In these four schools, though, Eakins said, improvements were coming through intense principal and teacher training, improved alignment of teaching materials to the standards, and other related efforts.
Nine of the low-rated teachers were allowed to continue, with support, Eakins said. And the principals in question were seeing gains in student monitoring data that warranted allowing them to remain at least until the end of the school year, to see if the outcomes were real.
Pizzo is dealing with a massive influx of students, which needed to be resolved, he said. Mango's principal just completed a turnaround leadership program and was adding a full administrative team and more community partners.
Dover's early gains across demographic groups gave the district confidence of the school's success, Eakins continued. And Palm River fixed its problem of rampant teacher absenteeism.
The district was complying with state law regarding percentages of low-evaluated teachers, Eakins said, and was making strides toward a sustainable education model for these schools.
Board members were nonplussed.
They saw a district that made promises and had not kept them.
"There were certain commitments made," board member Michael Olenick said at one point. "Have they completed the commitments?"
"It does not appear that they did," responded commissioner Pam Stewart, who had asked the board to revisit the district's plan. "It was our belief that those four principals would be moved by Dec. 15."
Eakins protested that his letter told the board the district would evaluate those leaders in December to decide whether to switch them. But the distinction did not win over the panel, which expressed concerns over Hillsborough's large percentage of the state total of lowest performing schools.
In the end, the board instructed Stewart to ensure Hillsborough's plans are fully complied with.
"No one is talking about firing anyone. They can move around or switch principals however they see fit," Stewart said afterward. "We will immediately, tomorrow, begin working with them."
Eakins said that, although the district had taken steps for improvement, he will work with the department toward its goals.
"We will go back and have that discussion about what to do next," he said. "I'm sure things will happen very quickly."
– Staff writer Emily Mahoney contributed.