Achievement program off to good start in bringing equity to Hillsborough district, school board says

Filling teacher positions and keeping scores up remain question marks in first year.
School Superintendent Jeff Eakins, speaking of the first-year Achievement Schools initiative, said Wednesday, “My biggest role is to inject belief into the system." [Times]
School Superintendent Jeff Eakins, speaking of the first-year Achievement Schools initiative, said Wednesday, “My biggest role is to inject belief into the system." [Times]
Published March 12
Updated March 12

TAMPA - Tricia McManus told the Hillsborough County School Board about a recent day when, using just her words, she broke up a fight between two children at an elementary school.

The good news, McManus said: She was able to help them resolve their differences without formal discipline. “They were angry and crying, but I would not want those kids to go home for that."

The bad news, which she didn’t have to say: McManus, an assistant superintendent occupying one of the top positions in one the nation’s biggest school districts, has been teaching half days at James Elementary because the school doesn’t have enough teachers.

The East Tampa school is one of the most severe examples of obstacles the district faces this year with its Achievement Schools initiative, the subject of a school board workshop Tuesday morning.

Designed to bring equity to a district with large pockets of poverty, Achievement Schools encompasses 50 largely urban schools that are also under scrutiny by the state.

Since the initiative began, McManus said, “every one of our schools is seeing some level of improvement. But some are further behind than others.”

McManus and Superintendent Jeff Eakins are pleased with steps taken to reshape larger systems, including human resources and teacher training. But challenges remain.

Among them: Getting highly skilled principals to take jobs in the toughest schools.

"Let me tell you, there's still a fear factor there," McManus said.

Some school board members, including chairwoman Tamara Shamburger, restated their concern that principals are sometimes kept on the job long after it’s clear they are ineffective.

At schools with great principals, board member Cindy Stuart said, there are few to no teacher vacancies.

But Harrison Peters, the district’s chief of schools, pointed out that even athletic recruiters -- who collect mountains of data on up-and-coming prospects -- can only predict success about half the time.

Speaking later in the day in response to questions about Edison Elementary School, Eakins said he will make some principal changes before the school year is over, but will be sensitive to the affect those changes will have on the schools they are leaving.

At the workshop Tuesday, the board and staff pored over Achievement Schools reports knowing it’s too soon to find answers to a couple of major questions.

First, whether a new recruitment plan will succeed in steering teachers to schools that, in the worst cases, have a dozen or more vacancies.

And second, as board member Lynn Gray noted, whether schools that are making the greatest use of substitute teachers to fill vacancies will see scores rise or fall when students take the Florida Standards Assessments tests.

School board member Steve Cona, whose western Hillsborough County district has no schools on the Achievement initiative list, said he applauds the accountability of the new system.

"I don't have any Achievement schools, but I want some," he said.

The two-hour workshop also gave Superintendent Eakins a chance to share his philosophy as the initiative nears the end of its first year.

“My biggest role is to inject belief into the system,” Eakins said. “If I show one doubt in the way I speak or the way I lead, it will do nothing but create doubt in our schools and our communities.”