TAMPA — Next week, a small army of evaluators will descend upon the Hillsborough County schools. Their mission: decide whether the district deserves accreditation.
Officials say they're hopeful the 40-member team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will like what they see. But it's not a slam dunk.
"I wake up in the middle of the night wondering, do I have this right," said district coordinator Dennis Holt. "Are people informed enough to answer the questions the right way?"
Since 1914, individual high schools in Hillsborough have routinely won accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The voluntary process serves as a stamp of approval for colleges, employers and other groups that seek to gauge school quality.
But next week's visit is different, since Hillsborough is seeking full-district accreditation — something only a relative handful of school systems have attained.
On Monday, members of the visiting team will interview superintendent MaryEllen Elia, school board members, her senior staffers, and around 210 principals, Holt said. They'll scrutinize the district's strategic plan, look under the hood to see how student data is being measured, and poke through the budget.
The next day, they'll fan out to 40 schools and see if reality conforms to what they've been told.
"The things we've reported, are they evidenced out in the schools?" Holt said. "At the end of the day, they will probably have talked to 400 or 500 parents, and that's not even counting the people they will run across in the parking lot."
Some schools won't know if they're being visited until an evaluator shows up. But that's not so unusual in a district that gets plenty of attention from state officials, said Christi Buell, principal at Sulphur Springs Elementary.
"For us, it's really business as usual," she said.
At every school, the evaluator will meet with principals, teachers, students and parents. And the door will be closed.
"They shoo the principal out," he said. "It's strictly confidential."
On Wednesday at 3 p.m., the team will deliver its report in a public meeting at 901 East Kennedy Blvd.
Hillsborough officials say they're confident the district will win accreditation — but it might not earn a perfect grade.
"They will commend us for some things we do very well, but they will certainly make recommendations," Holt said. "It's not a rubber stamp by any means."