Controversy over a Hillsborough County School District program now struggling to deliver the college scholarships it promised has cast the spotlight on an organization that, until now, has enjoyed a low profile.
The Hillsborough Education Foundation has been around since 1988, largely in a support role for the nation's eighth largest school district.
Teachers in lower-income schools know about Teaching Tools, where they can get free donated supplies for their classroom.
The foundation also offers scholarships, mentors and classroom grants. It celebrates career education and science fair winners.
And it throws a gala event each February to announce the Teacher of the Year.
Days before news broke about the troubled Urban Teaching Academy, the foundation's new director, Philip Jones, met with the Tampa Bay Times and outlined some of his goals for the organization.
Scholarships: Jones, whose prior accomplishments include founding the Barney's coffee shop chain, would like every graduate of the public school system to have help attending college or getting workforce training.
"That's a pretty tall order," he acknowledged.
To get more public support for the concept, the foundation and four others in the bay area will launch a Tampa Bay Scholarship Walk on Dec. 8.
They hope to raise $1 million in one day, he said. "It's going to be the biggest effort in the history of our region to get behind scholarships for kids."
School supplies: Companies donate surplus supplies each year to a ground-floor "store" in the foundation's West Tampa headquarters.
They're free to teachers in schools that receive federal Title 1 funding for low-income children.
"This year we're on track to give away $1,500 per teacher to those in Title 1 schools, and it looks like we're going to do $1.5 million," Jones said. "Our goal is to throw the doors wide open to all the schools."
The yearly stuff-the-bus campaign will begin in the summer. And speaking of the headquarters, Jones hopes to turn a ground-floor warehouse into a teacher training center.
Advocacy: Jones, who's also an ordained minister, can extoll the virtues of public education anywhere, any time.
"We're the advocates of public education in Hillsborough County, in our region, the state and nation," he said. "We really do believe that we've got a great school system. Nothing's perfect. But it really is doing a lot of important things in the lives of kids. And we want to be advocates, so the community understands where its tax dollars go and the impact it's having on the lives of kids."
Get him talking and he'll also expound on the conservative campaign to shift resources to private schools and for-profit charter operations instead of increasing funding for traditional school districts.
"We were a holistic society, and we really didn't have an aristocracy," he said. "We fought a revolution to stop that silliness. And so now we have this pull of an elite, and then everybody gets left behind. The heck with the middle class and the lower class. That worries me, and it's not healthy for the future of our country."
Barely three months on the job, Jones said he is impressed by the array of choices the district offers its students; the career and technical programs that prepare students to enter the workforce if they are not bound for college; and the practical applications encouraged in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
Thousands took part in the recent STEM fair, he said, with projects that touched on the environment, food service, water quality, "all the issues we face as a society," he said. "I was just really amazed. So the district is really there as the facilitator of that kind of innovation that we desperately need for our country."
He sees the district and its nearly 200,000 students as largely at-risk as communities suffer economically. The school system, he contends, is a surrogate family, almost a nurturing parent that needs to give students hope and guidance along with an education that will prepare them for higher learning and productive work.
In recent weeks Jones has been networking with colleges and potential donors to find scholarships for graduates of the teaching academy, who were promised a debt-free college education if they completed the high school program and returned to the district to teach.
His predecessors did not embrace the fundraising effort, as they thought the commitment was unrealistic. Speaking last week, Jones said he did not mind taking on the challenge. "We're on the eve of getting some really nice donations," he said earlier in the week. "Our mission is to help kids. We don't mind pitching in to do our part."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]