TAMPA — It was magnet night at Ferrell Middle School. Parents and kids were collecting pamphlets. One offered college tuition and book funds to graduates of a program for future teachers.
"I remember thinking, it looks too good to be true," said Margaret McLean. "I said, 'Are you sure? They go through the program and they get tuition and book fees?' And they said yes. And I said, 'Are you sure?' And they said yes. So I signed my daughter up."
The Urban Teaching Academy at Middleton, Blake and Hillsborough high schools had every reason to succeed.
Everyone agreed the district needed more homegrown, inner-city teachers, and here was a plan that would put kids through college. Administrators toured a successful model in Broward County. They detailed what would happen in the classroom. They outlined potential partnerships. They won millions of dollars in federal grant money to get the program started. Kids signed up. Teachers with doctorates were enlisted.
Somewhere along the line, though, plans for the scholarships went awry. As of last week, about $17,000 had been raised, to be matched with money from Hillsborough Community College.
Yet the district continued to enroll students, year after year.
"I assumed that the 'higher-ups' had planned for this well in advance when they wrote the grant and accepted the funds," said Jennifer Morley, who was hired to run the teaching program in March 2008. "However, I later found that was not true."
Morley, who now teaches law and government at Jefferson High, said she was eager to groom a new generation of teachers. As she worked day and night to prepare to launch the program that summer, it didn't occur to her that scholarship funding would be an issue.
There was talk of a partnership with the nonprofit Hillsborough Education Foundation, which runs its own scholarship programs. But former foundation staff say there was no such partnership.
Tami Milner, former associate director of development for the foundation, recalls meeting with school district magnet supervisor Susan King, well after the program was under way. (King could not be reached for comment Friday.)
King, Milner said, told her she was starting a payroll deduction plan to collect money from teachers. The foundation already had a payroll deduction plan that raised about $80,000 a year for scholarships and other projects.
She said King warned her the foundation might lose donors to her program, and talked of having some foundation scholarships set aside for urban teaching students.
But Milner's boss, former foundation president Bill Hoffman, wanted no part of such a plan. He thought the promise was unrealistic. "He made it clear that he was not going to put our name on it," she said.
Assuming a yearly enrollment of 75 students, the commitment could be $500,000 a year or much more, not including books. An exact projection would be impossible, given the escalating cost of Florida prepaid plans.
And there was another problem. The urban teaching program required students to commit to teaching in Hillsborough after they finished college. Rules governing foundation scholarships would not allow such a condition, Milner said.
While school officials assumed some students would leave the program before their senior year, Hoffman said, "you have to plan for the worst-case scenario, if you want to call it that, where 100 percent of the students qualify. You don't want to plan for 70 and disappoint the other five."
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Thriving urban teaching academies in other districts like Broward provided Hillsborough with a road map. A key ingredient to success was a dedicated fundraiser, said Sara Rogers, who helped start Broward's academy.
In Broward, that person was Bob Parks, a retired School Board member. Parks funneled money into the fund from the annual teacher of the year gala and excess from his own School Board campaigns.
"You need a champion," Parks said. "Someone needs to support it vocally."
Rogers said she talked to superintendent MaryEllen Elia several times about the program. Although she can't recall when, Rogers said King visited Broward schools to see the program in action.
By most indications, the fundraising in Hillsborough fell to King, who handled it in addition to the rest of her job. She told the Tampa Bay Times in a previous interview that she contacted Oprah Winfrey's foundation, the Target Foundation and other possible sources. She contributed money herself.
In late 2010, a fundraising consultant was hired to organize a silent auction and spelling bee. "I thought it was to raise money for other things, like incentives for the students, not scholarships," said Middleton parent Debra Nelli.
Nelli's daughter, Heather, said she knew it was for the scholarship fund. A flier stated, "The UTA students at Blake, Hillsborough and Middleton need your help."
In September, King wrote an article for Parent Guide magazine asking for donations to a special fund at the education foundation. That fund existed, Hoffman and Milner said, but it was simply an account where people could donate money.
A letter to parents from King in December warned that the fund was struggling and scholarships might be competitive.
"Here it was, right before the holidays," Nelli said.
The Middleton students remain anxious, Heather said. A sophomore she works with asked her, "How do you feel about not getting a scholarship?"
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Even before news broke this month about the scholarship fund, Elia and the foundation's new president, Philip Jones, moved into high gear to try to take care of qualified graduates.
School Board members refrained from saying anything critical at Tuesday's meeting. Doretha Edgecomb, whose district includes all three schools, said that while addressing the problem, people should also consider the positive experience the students have had.
Elia, as before, said no promise has been broken. The school year is not over. Fundraising is ongoing. But she did acknowledge, "this was done later than it certainly should have been."
Julius Palfi has two daughters in the program at Hillsborough High. His older daughter chose the teaching academy over the International Baccalaureate program because of the scholarship promise, he said. She has been accepted into USF, whose president pledged this week to try to accommodate the students.
His younger daughter, a sophomore, will likely leave the program.
Palfi wants the district to honor its commitment to the students. "I feel they got betrayed," he said.
Students say King is still encouraging them to become teachers, urging them to keep in touch and offering to help them get jobs in the school district.
Board member Carol Kurdell contributed $500 this week to the scholarship fund, according to the district.
And King raised $600 through a sorority.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.