Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Teaching program promised scholarships, but funding is shaky

TAMPA — Mekka Mason and her parents were thrilled when they learned a Hillsborough County magnet program would help pay for Mekka, the youngest of six children, to go to college and become a teacher.

Launched four years ago, the Urban Teaching Academy promised scholarships and the cost of books to students who completed the program successfully. In return, they agreed to come back to Hillsborough and teach for three years in urban schools.

"We were just so happy," said Mekka's mother, Earline Graham, who is unemployed and seeking disability. "She was going to be the first one to get a college degree in the family."

But as the academy is about to graduate its first class, school officials are scrambling to fulfill the scholarship promise. Earlier in the school year, Mekka, a senior at Blake High School, and other students in the program at Middleton and Hillsborough high schools were told there wasn't enough money for scholarships.

The program has raised only about $17,000, said Susan King, supervisor of magnet programs for the school district. At last count, 31 students were completing the program.

"Am I disappointed that we didn't raise millions of dollars? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel that the students gained invaluable experience? Absolutely. Do I feel that we've helped them get into college and become teachers? Absolutely."

School officials are now helping students apply for other scholarships and financial aid. And King is working with the Hillsborough Education Foundation, the district's nonprofit fundraising arm.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who has been contacted by four parents from Blake, is meeting with B. Philip Jones, the foundation's new president today. They will assess the financial needs of each graduating student.

"I have called every one of the parents who have contacted me," Elia said. "I told them, 'Give us some time.' ''

Jones similarly, said, "We're going to make our best effort to enable the school district to fulfill this commitment to the kids."

• • •

In a 2008, recruiting trip at Sligh Middle School for the teaching academy, King told students that the average high school teacher earns $50,000 a year, plus insurance and great job security, for working 10 months.

Then she promised the scholarship for tuition and books, the Times reported at the time.

Heads perked up.

The Urban Teaching Academy, modeled after academies in Broward County and Arizona, was seen as the answer to both a teacher shortage and a chronic demand for educators attuned to inner-city populations.

It was one of several programs Hillsborough kick-started with a $3.12-million magnet grant in 2007. But the academy could not use federal funds for scholarships.

In addition to their regular classes, students shadow and assist teachers in nearby schools. Emily Witt, a junior, said she used to want to teach middle school but is now leaning toward elementary school.

"I actually see the little kids' faces light up. I see that smile on their face," she said. "You have to be patient with them. And you have to be careful what you say."

But she and other students were disappointed to hear about the scholarship fund.

"I would be scared right now if I was a senior," said Emily, 16.

When asked why the academy was launched without a clear source of funding, King said officials did not know how many scholarships they would need. With the rising cost of the Florida prepaid scholarships, it was also unclear how much those plans would cost.

She said she appreciates the efforts of the education foundation. But there has been turnover in the organization. "Every person we talked to in the beginning of about the program is now gone," and then there's the economy, she said.

King said she has contacted Target, Oprah Winfrey's foundation and other groups for aid.

Nikki LaMay, a senior at Blake, is confident she'll get a scholarship to Hillsborough Community College. But she doesn't know how she'll pay for the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

"They had us do something like two fundraisers. But if this was the case, we should have been doing more," said Nikki, 17.

• • •

Today's recruits for the Urban Teaching Academy are not promised scholarships. Instead, the district says it will help them seek scholarships and financial aid.

New students will now be accepted only at Blake.

But it's a program worth keeping, said Elia, who is thrilled to nurture home-grown teachers.

Jones said that for starters, he can match the $17,000 with another $17,000 from an HCC fund. School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose district includes the three affected schools, said she knows students and parents are concerned.

"I don't want anyone to feel that they were lied to," she said. "I think there was an earnest effort to find scholarships."

She thinks the community needs to do its share to shore up the program. "We're obligated in some way to try to keep our commitment to them."

For Mekka, who had considered acting, singing and law as careers, the Urban Teaching Academy "grounded" her.

"It helped me make a decision," Mekka said. "I'm focused."

But her parents had counted on the scholarship.

"They promised us so much," Mekka said.

Times staff writer John Martin contributed to this report.

Comments
Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

BROOKSVILLE — With dust still settling from the Hernando County School Board’s close vote to fire Superintendent Lori Romano — and days before her time as head of the district runs out — school officials and community members seem to be already movin...
Published: 06/20/18
Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

BROOKSVILLE — As schools and districts across the state await their 2018 grades from the Florida Department of Education, the standardized test scores that factor into those ratings and were dropped last week show slight gains in Hernando County.The ...
Published: 06/20/18
Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

An early analysis of the Pasco County School District’s 2018-2019 budget projects a deficit of more than a million dollars, with more than half of that coming from a shortfall in funding new school safety requirements.Costs to hire and train 53 new s...
Published: 06/20/18
New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG — Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USF’s latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time it’s done.For starters, it...
Published: 06/20/18
Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Am I missing something in the — pardon the expression — brouhaha over the renaming of the University of South Florida Sun Dome to the Yuengling Center? In trading a college arena’s longtime name for that of a big-name beer brewed ne...
Published: 06/20/18

Hillsborough school district will pursue two kinds of local taxes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials took an important step Tuesday toward asking the voters to pay higher taxes for schools that, they say, are not getting enough money from the state.The board voted 5-0 to submit a tax referendum r...
Published: 06/19/18
Updated: 06/20/18
Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Editor’s note: Ethan Hooper wrote today’s column to give Ernest Hooper Father’s Day off.In May, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in elementary education, and I recently secured a job as a first-grade teacher with Orang...
Published: 06/18/18
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18
School board races attract new faces

School board races attract new faces

TAMPA — When long-time Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes resigned this month from the board to run for the State House of Representatives, the decision affected more than just her seat in west Hillsborough’s District 1.It also coul...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/17/18
Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

TAMPA — Money that the Hillsborough County School District needs to build schools and replace air conditioners might be farther from reach, thanks to a new state law and a bureaucratic process required before the voters can decide on a tax referendum...
Published: 06/14/18