SEFFNER — Three weeks before the start of the school year, more than 1,000 new teachers were welcomed into the Hillsborough County School District on Wednesday.
Filling the Armwood High School auditorium, they were promised mentors who would be a cellphone call away. They were warned that if they texted or Facebook-messaged a student at midnight, they'd be called in for discipline.
And they were urged to treat each student as their own child, neighbor, niece or nephew.
"Just remember, we all own all of our students," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, addressing the group on day three of their orientation. "The difference in what happens in schools positively, or what doesn't happen in schools, is you. You are the most important one."
The superintendent's welcome is a yearly tradition for the nation's eighth-largest district. Training took a twist this year, as air conditioning problems at Strawberry Crest High School forced a last-minute relocation to Armwood.
Administrators took the change in stride, thanking the staff at Armwood and reminding out-of-town recruits that in Florida, air conditioning matters.
They told teachers that, under the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teaching program, they will receive mentors during their first two years.
Unlike the evaluation component of EET, the mentors have been popular from the start. Elia credits the program for helping boost new teacher retention from 74 to 94 percent.
"The reality is, our students are the most important thing that we have in Hillsborough County," Elia said. "If you make decisions for what's best for kids, you're going to make the right decisions. But for us to make sure that you can be as successful as you can as quickly as you can, you need support."
She was followed by School Board chairwoman April Griffin, whose message was more personal, taken from her childhood. She described a student at King High School who was mouthy, tardy and didn't do homework.
"I was that kid," said Griffin, who at 44 is completing a bachelor's degree and running for Hillsborough County Commission.
A math teacher appreciated Griffin's potential and enlisted her as a classroom helper.
"She saw something in me and she told me to believe in myself, that I was better than the way that I was acting," Griffin said. "And it made a difference. It made a huge difference in my life."
As in prior years, administrators lauded the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which collaborates with them on EET project and other issues.
"We are a solution-driven union," president Jean Clements said. "That makes us a smarter district and a more successful district."
The audience included Mary Colucci, a 26-year-old exceptional-education teacher whose father is the principal of the Bowers-Whitley Career Center.
"It made me so excited to hear how well they support you and to know they don't just throw you into the classroom," she said.
Jessica Rigodon, 25, just graduated from the University of South Florida but grew up in Miami and will teach at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa.
Rigodon was encouraged by the pride the speakers took in the district — and the spirit of collaboration with the union.
"It's nice that they have that sense of community," she said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]