TAMPA — Middle school students in Hillsborough County want more elective courses — performing arts and languages.
They are concerned about the physical condition of the buildings and the buses. They spend much too much time taking tests. They worry about classmates with learning disabilities.
And they see the impact of the district's budget crunch, from teachers who leave and are not replaced to blue-collar jobs that are being phased out.
"Why are so many of the people that help our school and its students to be successful being cut?" asked Lonnie Johnson of Adams Middle School.
He and dozens of others spent the day grilling School Board members as part of an annual ritual known as the student forum.
While impressed by the questions, board members and superintendent Jeff Eakins lamented that they are wrestling with these very issues as they contend with limited state revenues and years of misguided spending that they are now working to adjust.
The clearest impact on students: the many classes taught by substitute teachers because of an ongoing hiring freeze.
On that subject, Tomlin Middle School student Alexis Melendez did not hold back. She's had substitutes in math and history.
A third was fired because "he wasn't very proper," she said. The adults groaned at that oblique reference. Then they asked what Alexis would consider to be a qualified substitute.
"Just to know something about the subject," she said.
Students have noticed some of their schools have empty seats while others are bursting at the seams. They wondered what is being done to fill the half-empty schools.
It wasn't all complaints.
Jawan Youngblood, an eighth-grader at Marshall Middle, spoke highly of Gentlemen's Quest, a mentoring program in some of the schools.
Ashanti Cox is happy with the education she is receiving at Progress Village.
But, she said, her younger sister did not get into the school. "What can be done to keep families together?" she asked.
Students described good classes that went away when the teachers left. Conrad Hunter said it happened to the engineering, 3-D art and yearbook classes at Rampello K-8 School.
Students at both the morning and afternoon sessions asked why the district holds on to students' midterm exams without returning them so they can see where they made mistakes.
They asked about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
And there were questions about sports. Kids want more of them. They want opportunities to be equal for boys and girls.
Board members got some pointed questions about dress code issues in the afternoon session — and pushback when they answered the questions.
Member Susan Valdes, as she has in the past, quizzed the students on their career aspirations — military, medicine, business — and pointed out that each requires either a uniform or proper dress.
"We're preparing you for life," she said.
But student Tykia Best of Monroe Middle insisted she and her classmates should dress as they wish. "Some kids like to wear hoodies," she said.
When Valdes acknowledged that a hoodie is practical on a cold day, Tykia said that isn't the point. "They want to wear a hood to express themselves," she said.
Others complained that dress restrictions fall disproportionately on girls, dictating whether their shoulders can show and how short their shorts can be.
Instead of micromanaging girls so they won't distract the boys, Wilson Middle School's Morgan Austrich said, boys should learn how to not be distracted.
Board members, as is their custom, will forward the questions to the district staff and deliver the answers later to the schools.
Eakins made it clear that financial issues make some of the problems difficult to solve. But he said their questions will help district leaders shape their agenda.
"Because you are the reason we exist," he said, "we'd better go out there and meet your needs."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.