Van Buren K-8? Could happen. But Hillsborough leaders say for now, it's just speculation
TAMPA - It's all very hypothetical at this point.
But included in a long list of future capital projects for the Hillsborough County school district is this item for Van Buren Middle School: $3 million, "K-8 conversion."
That notation reflects an option that has been discussed, off and on, since early this year: Turn Van Buren, an under-enrolled and low performing school on the outskirts of Sulphur Springs, into a better school that kids enter in kindergarten.
"If you have the right staff, the right teachers and the right program, you can become more familiar with the kids," said Lewis Brinson, a former assistant superintendent who retired this year, but was part of the discussions before he did. "You can do more with them, build better relationships."
Hillsborough has four successful K-8 schools: Tinker, at the MacDill Air Force Base; Roland Park, a magnet school; Turner-Bartels in New Tampa; and Rampello Downtown Partnership across the street from school district headquarters.
A fifth, Sulphur Springs Community School, used to be K-5 and then began adding middle school grades in 2015. So far, only sixth grade has been added.
"Most successful K-8 schools are in suburban markets," said Sheff Crowder, who chairs a consortium of organizations that are working with the Sulphur Springs school and the surrounding neighborhood. "But private schools, and especially Catholic schools, they've been doing K-8 models for years. It's a proven strategy. It's not a proven strategy in the inner city environment, at least locally."
The jury is still out at Sulphur Springs, which is one of seven schools the district has designated for extra attention with its new Elevate label. One strategy the school is using to improve student buy-in is a house system that resembles the division of students in the fictional school of the Harry Potter novels.
Sulphur Springs improved its report card grade from an F in 2015 to a D this year. Van Buren has had a D grade for the last two years.
District spokeswoman Tanya Arja emphasized that the notion of converting Van Buren to a K-8 school is purely hypothetical."We are looking at all possibilities," she said. "But there is no plan." Before a plan were to emerge, she said, the district would discuss the idea publicly at community meetings.
This year's 20 day enrollment numbers showed Van Buren is operating at 42 percent capacity with 418 students.
Last year more than 200 more students who could have attended Van Buren opted for tax-supported, privately operated charter schools. The three most popular were Horizon Charter School of Tampa, New Springs and Community Charter School of Excellence.
Van Buren's student body, drawing from neighborhoods around Busch Gardens and Rowlett Park, is 60 percent black, 29 percent Hispanic and 4 percent white. Ninety-seven percent qualify for free lunch.
Questions surrounding Van Buren involve other schools as well. MOSI Partnership, an elementary school with just 274 students, faces an uncertain future because the museum intends to move at some point to downtown Tampa.
Districtwide, there is an overall need for elementary school seats. At the same time, the district has nearly a dozen urban middle schools, including Van Buren and nearby Sligh, that are at least a third empty.
The board will vote on the five-year plan at a special meeting at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.