TAMPA — As the Hillsborough school district faces questions and scrutiny about its Urban Teaching Academy, the University of South Florida will work to help the district make good on the promise to provide qualified students with scholarships.
"I just spoke to (president) Judy Genshaft at the University of South Florida and she is going to help us with scholarships for the students," Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Monday. "I am encouraged."
Debra Nelli, whose daughter is a senior in the academy at Middleton High School, also was encouraged. But, she said, "they should have done this from the beginning."
Launched in 2008 with a federal grant to help boost Hillsborough's teaching ranks, the academy promised college tuition and money for books to students who met its requirements and agreed to return to Hillsborough and teach in local urban schools.
But school officials told the Tampa Bay Times last week that they had raised only $17,000 for scholarships as the first class of 31 students are about to finish the magnet program at Blake, Hillsborough and Middleton high schools. Four Middleton families sent a letter to Elia complaining about uncertain funding and changing requirements.
"We made a promise to the kids," said School Board member Susan Valdes, who plans to raise the issue at today's 3 p.m. School Board meeting. "That promise has not been kept. Why?"
But Elia stresses no promise has been broken. The district is evaluating each of the seniors to make sure they qualify for the scholarships, have applied successfully to college and still want to be teachers.
"We are working to make sure we live up to what we promised," she said. "There is a number of students in the program who still don't have plans. Some of it is still up in the air. But we never thought about not making good on the scholarship promise."
USF spokesman Michael Hoad said Monday the university values its relationship with the school district. "President Genshaft said the program is good and the school district is an important partner," he said.
The Hillsborough Education Foundation already has said it has $17,000 from Hillsborough Community College to match the money the program raised.
The three teaching academies were among nine magnet programs funded by a three-year federal grant for $9 million. In its early years the program promised "a debt-free college education," four years of college tuition and books to students who met program requirements and agreed to teach for three years in urban Hillsborough schools.
What was not clear is how the district planned to raise the scholarship money. Susan King, magnet programs supervisor, last week said the failing economy hurt the district's efforts. School officials also said they relied on the education foundation, the district's fundraising arm.
But Bill Hoffman, who was president of the foundation for nine years, said he did not know about the scholarship promise. He said that when King suggested the promise about four years ago, he tried to talk her out of it.
"I said, 'Do you have any idea how much money you will need?' " Hoffman said he told her. "That's not practical. It's way too much money and you would have to raise more money later on."
Hoffman said he had a similar conversation with Elia. He did not remember her response and Elia said Monday she did not remember that such a conversation took place. Hoffman left the foundation in July, citing differences in goals.
What is clear is that over time the program changed in several ways, according to letters and emails provided by parents and the school district.
For example, a minimum 2.0 grade point average became a 3.0. Community service requirements rose from 75 hours to 100. An early pitch promising money for books was "a dream" that was soon discarded, King told the Times last week. King could not be reached for comment Monday.
Elia said Monday the district will honor whatever promises were made to students when they entered the program.
It's also clear that in the past year the funding situation became increasingly dire. In response to a records request, the district provided the Times with a letter dated in October with King's name but not her signature asking parents to circulate pledge cards among acquaintances and co-workers.
Nelli, the Middleton parent, said she never received an October letter, but she did get one in December that warned parents, "If we cannot raise a substantial amount of money, the UTA scholarships may also become a competitive process."
Elia said Monday the process absolutely is not competitive.
Board member Stacy White recalled taking part in a fundraising spelling bee for the academy last year. "Susan (King) asked me to write a check and I had every intention of doing so, but it just slipped off my radar," he said.
While federal money could not go toward scholarships, the district was able to use some of it for staff training and etiquette lessons for the students.
IMPACTS, co-founded by former basketball player Chris Ward, was paid nearly $15,000 in 2010 to give sessions called First Impressions, the Art of Networking, Dress for Success and Dine like a Diplomat.
President Celeste Roberts said the program sought to help students become more competent and competitive in the classroom and professional settings, such as teacher conferences.
Like White, she had no idea the program was struggling financially. "I hope it works out for the kids," she said.
Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Elisabeth Parker contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]