Eakins: Reorganization is first step to help kids read
The Hillsborough County School District's reorganizaton, with its reliance on eight area superintendents, is the first step towards curing a reading deficit that affects tens of thousands of children, Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Friday.
Addressing community leaders in South Tampa in a breakfast event called Cafe Con Tampa, Eakins said he is understandably disturbed by this year's state testing results, which show 31,300 students read at Level 1, far below proficiency.
"That's unacceptable," he said, and he said as much to district leaders who met at a training session Thursday. It isn't a new trend. But "it has plateaued," he said. "We are not accelerating."
But, rather than singling out schools, he said it is important to work top-to-bottom on the organization.
"Every single person in the organization that's ultimately supporting our schools, that's ultimately supporting decisions made at our schools, has to be completely aligned with what great instruction looks like," he said.
Eakins' remarks came three days after a School Board budget workshop in which he acknowledged that Hillsborough has 38 district-run elementary schools on the state's list of 317 with the lowest reading levels. Two charter schools bring the total to 40. In 2014, the number was 26.
In analyzing the district after he took over in mid-2015, Eakins said, "I found some misalignments," even in schools that devoted considerable resources to reading.
"So the first thing you have to address is, you put all the right people in place. I knew right away that if we were going to be successful ultimately in our classrooms with our students, we had to make sure that we had regional superintendents that had the most ability to affect leadership at the schools and change at the schools."
All eight area superintendents, he said "were hired with the clear evidence that they can turn around schools."
A five-part screening process included an initial interview to make sure the candidate shared the vision and philosophies of Eakins and the School Board; school walk-throughs, where the candidates had to point out flaws and bright spots; and impromptu presentations to staff. Now, he said, "I have eight regional superintendents that can do that work."
It's not a small task.
Data released by the Florida Department of Education show that, in percentages of students reading at Level 1, Hillsborough exceeds the state average in every grade except seventh. The state defines Level 1 as "Inadequate: Highly likely to need substantial support for the next grade/course."
The calculations taken the Tampa Bay Times did not include Level 2, which is still below grade level; or Level 3, which is on level, but not considered strong.
The 31,300 students counted also represent an incomplete sampling of district enrollment, as the Florida Standards Assessment in English Language Arts is not given to grades kindergarten, 1, 2, 11 or 12.
Looking school by school, there are grade levels in which the majority of students are at Level 1.
At Edison Elementary, 52 percent of third graders and 63 percent of fourth graders are Level 1. Those numbers at Booker T. Washington Elementary are 51 percent in third grade and 65 percent in fourth grade. At Potter Elementary, 61 percent of fifth graders are Level 1.
The trend continues in the middle schools, where McLane Middle has 57 percent of its seventh graders on Level 1 and 54 percent of eighth graders on Level 1. At Sligh Middle, those percentages are 55 for seventh grade and 50 for eighth grade.
Edison, Washington, Potter, McLane and Sligh are five of the seven schools designated by Eakins first as "priority" schools and later as "Elevate" schools. The initial expectation was that they would be supervised by a separate leader with enhanced services to the students and their families.
The plan now, however, is to make these seven schools the responsibility of their area superintendents, who will seek assistance from downtown offices as needed.
"Until you have the whole system aligned and capacity built, you will never be able to sustain it," Eakins said Friday. "Because ultimately, students will move from place to place. The goal for me is to build capacity so that 250 schools in this district are highly functioning."
When that happens, he said, "the seven or 10 or 15 that are struggling will also be high functioning. I can't take attention away from the other schools. That would be like plugging up on hole on a boat and creating another."