Brooks DeBartolo makes mark on education

Brooks founds a high school, with an emphasis on college success.
Published July 30 2014
Updated July 31 2014

TAMPA — As they stood together in a ballroom at the Hilton Tampa Downtown in April — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Eddie DeBartolo and Derrick Brooks — something seemed to be missing. The Lombardi Trophy, perhaps?

Together, DeBartolo and Brooks have won six of them. Okay, so DeBartolo won five as owner of the 49ers. But when two iconic Super Bowl champions are hanging out with the commish, the commish usually is passing out hardware.

Instead, Goodell was the guest speaker at an athletic facility fundraising breakfast for Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, which has several sports teams but not a football team or a field for one play on.

And if that doesn't illustrate the passion and purpose that Brooks and DeBartolo had for academics over athletics when envisioning the successful charter school in north Tampa, which opened in 2007, nothing will.

These are the best of times for the school, which has received an A grade from the Florida Department of Education four consecutive years. In 2012 the school moved to an 11-acre campus. All 68 graduating seniors were accepted to college and received a combined $1.6 million in scholarships, not including Bright Futures.

But that wasn't always the case. When Brooks approached DeBartolo in 2005 about becoming partners in creating a charter school — an idea inspired by longtime educator Dr. Phildra Swagger, who would become the school's first principal — he was admittedly nervous. The conversation lasted only about 15 minutes.

"Derrick mentioned doing something, and I said, 'Absolutely, we'd love to do something,' " DeBartolo said. "He's in a class of people like Freddie Solomon and Lee Roy Selmon in Tampa. I mean, they're human beings that just care. They care about people and especially about kids."

Brooks had always been involved with education endeavors through Derrick Brooks Charities, and the DeBartolo Family Foundation gives scholarships to high school seniors annually. The organizations came together to form Brooks DeBartolo Charities, and the high school they wanted to establish would prepare students for college with a private school education and environment at no cost.

The original location of the school was a converted Circuit City building with the capacity to hold 500 students. Although it had a strong academic program, the school did not have a gym or adequate instructional space. Other shortfalls spread to the classrooms, and the school received its only D grade in 2009. Once enrollment reached 250 students, the board of directors discussed ways to invest in a sustainable future.

Brooks remembers consulting with DeBartolo, who understood how to make changes.

"As a founding group, we understood it was time for a talent change," Brooks said. "I said, 'Mr. D, you went through the tough decisions. You had to make coaching changes. You had to go from Joe Montana to Steve Young. I need you. Tell me what signs to look for.' We decided a different vision, a strategic plan and an environment change."

DeBartolo's senior management team and an experienced group of educators on the board were able to identify a new location and secured financing of a church site off N Central Avenue in Tampa just south of Fowler Avenue.

Perhaps the biggest transformation arrived with the hiring of a new principal, Kristine Bennett, who replaced roughly half of the faculty and staff.

"What I saw was the opportunity to fulfill the mission and the vision," Bennett said. "Absolutely, this school could be what the founders and the board wanted it to be.

"When I first arrived, only about a third of the students were passing reading at their efficiency rate. Seeing that right away, I knew we had to put things in place, and it starts with the teachers."

The result has been overwhelming. In the spring of 2013, the school held its first lottery for Grade 9 with more than 200 applicants for 145 seats. In 2013, the school received a 15-year charter extension and was designated a high performing school by the state.

Brooks has never been the kind of athlete to simply lend his name to a cause. He is a frequent visitor to the school, and his interaction with students goes well beyond the role of founder. "He gets to know students on a personal level and asks about them," Bennett said. "Endearing is a good word. … I think people are surprised about the involvement he has. It's not just his name on the building."

Like he did as a Bucs player, Brooks embraces the struggle, the problems the high school endured to ascend to where it is today — one of the nation's top charter schools, according to the Washington Post. But he doesn't take that success for granted.

"I wouldn't change a thing," Brooks said. "I'd take us through the same valley to take us to the peak. Now we have a level of excellence, and we can't take it for granted. We've got to start every year and make that climb. That's what I learned in football, defending a Super Bowl championship."

"He gets to know students on a personal level and asks about them. Endearing is a good word. … I think people are surprised about the involvement he has."

Kristine Bennett, principal of Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School