On the brink of turnaround: Tampa's Booker T. Washington Elementary (w/video)

After years of low grades, leaders at Booker T. Washington Elementary hope hard work and an intensified focus will overcome poverty's grip.

Published March 22 2014
Updated January 22 2015


There's something almost poetic in the way principal Anthony Montoto talks about Booker T. Washington Elementary, the troubled school he inherited last summer.

He imagines long-ago voices filling the halls — generations of students, mostly from poor Tampa homes, who came to be educated there. He does his thinking in the cafeteria, where murals of civil rights leaders and ethnic entertainers fill the walls.

The ancient floorboards that creak under his feet could tell all kinds of stories. And eight months after coming here from a school in the suburbs, so can he.

Booker T. Washington, the new principal has learned, is a mixed bag of richness and ragged edges, a place of hope that needs help.

One day, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers show up with backpacks for all 500 students. Another day, an irate mom shouts names at Montoto and threatens to run him down with a truck.

One day, the principal invites a professional comic to the Monday staff meeting to boost morale. Later, a punch to the gut: On a parent night when the school decides not to provide dinner or entertainment, attendance is depressingly low.

But then a student does something surprising, like apologize for acting out in class, and the smiles return.

Things always feel a little on edge in this circa-1925 brick structure midway between downtown and Ybor City, a school that, with its F grade, is already under continuous review by state officials and is headed for the state's more burdensome "turnaround" process unless things change.

Anything can happen between 5 p.m., when parents arrive to walk their children home, and 7:30 the next morning, when Montoto greets them warmly at the door.

Across the parking lot is a peach stucco mass of subsidized apartments where you might get a good night's sleep — or your windows smashed in.

Hillsborough County school officials have fancy terms for places like Washington. They call them "high-needs" schools, "renaissance" schools.

In plain English, nearly every child is poor enough to get free lunch. Young lives filled with chaos and deprivation are reflected in the grades on standardized tests. The biggest single cohort is made up of kids who read, write and do math at level one, the lowest point on the state's five-level scale.

And soon they could fall even further behind as the state completes its rollout of the new Florida Standards, a variation on Common Core that stresses higher-order thinking. Starting in August, all students will need to show how they solved that math problem, explain the essay they wrote, take it up a few notches. Yet at Washington, there are fourth-graders who don't capitalize the pronoun "I."

Such flaws don't go unnoticed in this era of accountability. You can have the best of intentions, hire the most creative teachers, serve three meals a day. You can dress kids in uniforms and teach them to play the violin.

But eventually it all comes down to test scores. And, under the state's turnaround strategy, chronic F schools face a short list of fixes, including closure. Initially, they're asked to replace principals and assistant principals. That's how Montoto landed at Washington, leaving a very different school — Valrico Elementary.

He quickly settled on some goals:

Teach his students what they need when more and more is being asked of young children. Mold them into good people in an environment that does not always build character. And raise scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, to make the school's F a memory.

The School District didn't make the task any easier at first, transferring both his assistant principals on the fourth day of classes. Only recently did Montoto get the second one replaced.

So he and his staff are climbing the Mount Everest of public education. Jokingly, he reminds his wife how important he is when she asks him to take out the trash. But he asked for this assignment, having worked at Washington years ago as an assistant principal.

"I want to be here," he says.

• • •

Taxpayers spent $5.7 million at Booker T. Washington last year, or $11,111 per student, much of it from Title I, the federal antipoverty program, district budgets show. At other schools of comparable size, the per-student spending ranges from $7,000 to $10,000.

As part of Hillsborough's own turnaround process, reading coaches work one-on-one with struggling students. Resource teachers for reading, math and writing employ up-to-date methods during classroom lessons. "Intervention specialists" pinpoint students who fall behind.

During an extended day that lasts nine hours — about three hours more than the norm — children are fed breakfast, lunch and a snack that often serves as dinner. Music, sports, academic enrichment and other so-called "EdVenture" activities are offered throughout the day. In spring there are Saturday academies.

Yet test scores at Washington are among the lowest in the state. Last year, 57 percent of third-graders in Florida passed the FCAT in reading. At Washington, it was 16 percent.

Give us the same children for six years, school leaders say, and the numbers would look a lot better. But the reality for many children is one of unstable families and frequent moves.

Kindergartners have been seen taking food from the cafeteria for younger siblings at home.

Kids show up without underwear, even after the school sends packages of it home. They arrive with undiagnosed disabilities, and their families move before the school can arrange services. Child abuse investigators appear on a regular basis, often to follow up on cases in the homes.

Background checks on roughly 5 percent of the children's parents revealed nearly two-thirds had arrest records in Hillsborough. Drug charges and domestic violence accounted for roughly half the offenses.

Kids in the community grow up fast, and school officials sometimes make a conscious effort not to let students' home lives become a reason not to succeed. Instead, they challenge the children to go to class and learn.

Montoto said he has made great strides in winning the respect of students and parents — with one notable exception.

Two days before winter break in December, a mother called him a Cracker and told him she would hate to see a truck hit him.

The woman says he was rude to her when she told him her son's teacher grabbed him roughly. She says he followed her to the parking lot; Montoto denies it. She says the staff looks down on her because she's a single mom, pregnant and poor.

Montoto, who could have pressed criminal charges, says she's been reprimanded for dressing inappropriately and leaving her son at school too late.

"This isn't typical. But it is reality," he says.

He had the security officer issue the mom a warning letter.

She declined to sign it.

• • •

Parent night, Nov. 7.

Washington, like other schools, sometimes offers dinner to lure parents to meetings. But on this night, with no food, parents stay away. "They should want to be here," Montoto says.

Walteria Vasquez, 26, shows up in Deborah Johnson's fourth-grade classroom with her daughter Carmen Fisher.

Johnson recounts a conflict between Carmen and a classmate. "What can I say? They are girls and girls have drama. I don't do drama."

Carmen is smart, Johnson says. "She takes pride in what she does, except for her handwriting."

That's a problem, as the state has adopted stricter methods of grading the writing FCAT. "If they can't read it, they're going to score it low."

Johnson advises Carmen to read at least 15 minutes a day and practice her multiplication tables.

Carmen has been at Washington since preschool. Later, in her family's apartment, she says she loves the school. She's reading Wish Stealers, one of the selections for the fourth-grade Battle of the Books.

Her mother "followed the crowd," dropped out of Middleton High, got her GED in 2013 and now works as a hairdresser.

Carmen is different. "She talks about high school, middle school, college and I'm just ready for it," Vasquez says.

But it's stressful, hearing teachers talk about the FCAT. They ask why kids care more about what people think of their shoes than the school grade. Carmen worries about the writing test, which is graded on a six-point scale.

"You have to have everything, like conventions, elaboration," she says. "I'm close to a 4.0, but you have to have everything in it and I don't know if I can do that."

• • •

A team from the state has been in and out of Washington all year, keeping an eye on test scores and once noting two teacher vacancies. In October they wrote, "teachers use a lot of sarcasm with the children" and "yell a lot."

Montoto said the statement is "not representative of the staff as a whole." He knows what they meant and has addressed the issue.

Nearly one-third of Washington's teachers have been on the job five years or less, with five years generally considered the minimum to learn the craft.

That compares to 13 percent at suburban Westchase Elementary, where half have more than 15 years of experience.

Only 7 percent at Washington have served that long.

Sonia Coleman, 38, one of the school's veteran teachers, has worked with the district 14 years.

The daughter of educators, she hopes to earn her doctorate in linguistics. She says she's proud of her African-American heritage and pays close attention to language and literacy, insisting — as her parents did — that her children learn the English they'll need to succeed in school.

Coleman and her fifth-grade students speak frankly about statements like "you sound white" and "that's ghetto talk." They discuss what the words mean, what they reveal about people's attitudes.

She corrects students individually when they slip into vernacular constructions such as she be instead of she is.

It's an example of the many things Washington's staff does by instinct, despite all the state oversight — things that aren't on any checklist or test.

On Halloween, the staff and volunteers dress as characters in the battle books. They serve treats, re-enact passages and coax the children to read with them.

Teachers and administrators celebrate small, personal victories — the child who finally sits still long enough to complete a worksheet, the animal rescue video that doubles as a lesson on reading and empathy.

After a boy had been goofing around in class, Montoto spoke to him and his parent. Later, the child slipped a note of apology under Montoto's door.

Reading it, the principal smiled. "I called you out because I know you can do better," he told the child.

"But you have to believe it, too."

• • •

Three weeks after the November parent night, Deborah Johnson is teaching division. The kids are asked to distribute tokens on construction paper circles and figure out the remainder.

Some catch on quickly, others are lost. One child has his head on the desk, barely able to stay awake, bags under his eyes.

"I need you to sit up so you can hear what Ms. Johnson has to say," Johnson tells him. "I need you to sit up, sweetheart."

In his notebook, the boy has begun an essay: "My life is very difficult sometimes. And sometimes it is not but mostly it is."

He wrote about entering the school on Oct. 30, and how Montoto assured him: "There was nothing to worry about and the class I was going to was a good class and there were no bullies and no one would hate me or hit me and I would make lots of friends."

The Tampa Bay Times tried to interview the child six weeks later, but he had moved for the fourth time this school year.

• • •

Monday morning, the first day after winter break. FCAT season is closing in.

A second-floor conference room, still decorated from a holiday program, has been converted to a war room. A dozen teacher coaches, counselors and administrators have come armed with data, eager to get busy.

They 've pored over test scores, and now it's time to see what's possible. They focus on students who are "on the bubble" between scoring at or below grade level.

With fourth grade weak, reading coaches resolve to pair up with teachers. Montoto will inform staffers who need the most help, based on the data.

"The bottom line is, we're an F school," he says. "We've got to do something. I'm going to put it into honest terms. "

They brainstorm ways to help kids learn basic spelling, such as word-wall displays and old-fashioned spelling bees.

Sherry Ogden, a district supervisor, wants to know how many have a shot at scoring a 4.0 out of a possible 6.0 in writing. They do the math. Roughly 30 test at 2.0 and 2.5 — the "bubble kids" — making the goal realistic.

Three teachers have signed on to work at a Saturday academy. Montoto volunteers his wife. All students are invited, but he especially wants to recruit those on the bubble. "They have to come. There's no excuse."

They make another hard decision: Music and sports in the afternoon must be cut back until after the FCATs.

Not long after, state officials review the plan. And no, Montoto says, they don't think the school is too focused on tests.

They'd like to see more of it.

• • •

Some mornings Broderick and Mario Buchanan walk to school with the neighbors. Other times they go with Nicole Jordan, their mother's friend, whom they call daddy.

Their biological father was shot and killed coming out of a nightclub when Mario was a baby. "So all they know is her," says their mother, Mary Humphery.

It's a Thursday night in January as Broderick, 8, gets a breathing treatment for his asthma. Mario, 7, is at the table with scissors and glue, working on a homework assignment.

Broderick is in first grade for the second time. Mario is repeating kindergarten. The initial phases of Common Core, which focused on early grades, raised the bar for both children, especially Mario. "They wanted him to write a sentence," Humphery says.

Broderick likes reading about superheroes and wants to be one. Mario wants to be a police officer. His teacher is "awesome."

Humphery, 25, left Middleton High and became pregnant while at an alternative school. She later obtained her GED and is in-between jobs. Jordan, 27, is pursuing her GED and works temporary jobs. Both are counting on the children to take a different path.

"I want them to do the things I didn't do," Humphery says, "like going to high school, graduate high school and experience that life of going to college, living better."

• • •

Parent night, Jan. 30.

This time, there's a larger group at the parent-teacher conference night. Children fill tables in the cafeteria for arts and crafts. Relevant Church, an Ybor City congregation that works with the school, has brought pizza. The Saturday academy is going well. Montoto is crossing his fingers about the FCAT.

In a kindergarten room, Alexis Urso discusses one of her star students, Jahquez Louis.

"He's reading on a level 12," she tells the boy's mom, Dedra Mitchell. "He only needs to be at a four to exit kindergarten. I'm going to keep pushing him. I want him to be surpassing first-grade standards. You know what I mean? His PRS — probability of reading success — is the highest you can go."

But it's no time to be complacent. She advises Mitchell to ask Jahquez what he's reading. She should have him ask questions, in keeping with Common Core.

"They want them to be able to tie those questions into what they're reading, answering questions that come directly from the text," Urso says. "They call them text-dependent questions. They have to go back into the book, dig for the answers, transfer them back to the paper and be able to tell us about it."

That's all good, Mitchell says. But she has a concern.

Urso drew a frown on one of her son's worksheets. "He was hurt by that. He said, 'Ms. Urso got it wrong. I was supposed to have a happy face.' "

Urso pauses. She tells Mitchell that Jahquez can handle a challenge. He's up for yet another academic award.

At the same time, he is 5. So, she tells Mitchell softly, she won't draw frowns on his work.

"I'll just make him redo it."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]