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Marlene Sokol, Times Staff Writer

Marlene Sokol

Marlene Sokol has worked at the Times as a reporter, editor and columnist since 1988. After launching North of Tampa in 1996, she served first as its editor and later as a general assignment reporter specializing in the suburbs. She now covers education in Hillsborough County.

Phone: (813) 226-3356


  1. Just a shirt?


    You might read today's story about the Idlewild Baptist Church spirit shirt giveaway and say, it's just a shirt.

    But sometimes it isn't.

    A reader shared this green flyer that came home in a child's bookbag Thursday. At the family's request, we deleted the school name....

    Idlewild Baptist Church donated these spirit shirts at 21 schools. Teachers had the option of accepting and wearing them.
  2. Teacher shirts in Hillsborough strike a nerve when they advertise a church


    TAMPA — More than 2,000 Hillsborough County public school teachers received T-shirts this week that advertise a megachurch with conservative values, fueling a backlash from some who said the gesture was inappropriate.

    The back of the shirts say "Staff" in large letters, and underneath are the words, "In Partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church."

    "We partner with a lot of faith-based organizations, not just this one," said school district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. "They care about our schools and our students, so we're proud of the partnership."...

    The T-shirts represent the latest in a series of contributions from Idlewild.
  3. Music, pirates and big goals as Hillsborough students return to school


    TAMPA — They tumbled out of big yellow buses into buildings with high-buffed floors. Some were met with music. For others, the trip was a run through PTA tables and T-shirt sales.

    Just less than 200,000 children in Hillsborough County returned to school on Tuesday.

    "Have a great first day," superintendent Jeff Eakins said as he greeted students at his first stop, Sligh Middle School. He told a medical studies student who asked about her schedule: "I'll find someone who can help you."...

    Cassandra Booth and daughter Alyssandra Mercedes, who is in kindergarten, wait for classes to begin Tuesday at Bellamy Elementary in Tampa. Teachers and staffers dressed as pirates to get everyone more engaged, using the book Teach Like a Pirate as a guide for the new year. See how other county schools said welcome back. Story, 10B
  4. Hillsborough school officials held back on publicly discussing dwindling reserve fund


    TAMPA — During a mid-July retreat at a Holiday Inn in Brooksville, the news started trickling out to Hillsborough County School Board members. The school district's reserve fund was shrinking fast.

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins was headed to a meeting with the district's bonding agencies, where he would learn a $200 million depletion over four years led to negative reports to investors....

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins holds a news conference Monday at Leto High. Eakins said that before school officials publicly discussed dwindling reserves, he want to make sure his message was appropriate, and that administrators throughout the district had the facts they needed to react appropriately. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times] 
  5. Tampa magnet schools will take 99 students from Brandon's McLane


    TAMPA — Nearly 100 students who were zoned to attend Brandon's McLane Middle School have been placed into east Tampa magnet schools instead, part of an effort to reduce the extensive busing that led to longstanding problems at McLane.

    A Tampa Bay Times report in April showed McLane had some of the worst academic and discipline problems in the district. The school had the highest expulsion rates in the county, both for the 2013-14 year and overall across the past decade. In addition, black students there performed well below their peers at other schools, and McLane had more teachers rated unsatisfactory than any other school in the state....

    The move is part of Hillsborough chief Jeff Eakins’ effort to reduce busing from east Tampa.
  6. Eakins on the day before Hillsborough schools start: 'It's way more than just academics'


    TAMPA — Jeff Eakins had good reasons for choosing Leto High School for Monday's back-to-school news conference — an annual tradition for the Hillsborough County district but his first ever as superintendent.

    The school has a child development center, Little Leto. It has an award winning culinary arts program and an adult automotive school on campus.

    And it's part of a group of schools that have come together for a community Parent Teacher Association....

    Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins holds a news conference Monday at Leto High School.
  7. Some Hillsborough schools have room to spare, but district keeps building


    TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County School District prepares to spend $54 million to build new schools and classroom wings, dozens of existing schools are operating well below capacity.

    The district's five-year capital improvement plan shows 25 schools, not including alternative schools or career centers, that are one-third to half empty.

    Some have received D and F grades from the state — including Sligh and Van Buren middle schools, and Lockhart and Riverhills elementary schools....

  8. Following the Money in Hillsborough: Teachers' leader speaks out


    As we wait for Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins' analysis of teacher pay, and how changes in the system might have affected the district's fund balance, Gradebook spoke with Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, to get her perspective.

    "I would keep in mind a couple things," she said. "You have a number of unfunded mandates coming from Tallahassee."

    These include testing requirements that do not come with adequate funding to buy the computers students need to take the tests, she said. Requiring some schools to stay open an hour longer also costs districts money.

    "That takes energy," she said. "That takes staff. That takes transportation. Again, they do it, they mandate it, they put no money toward it. These are just two good examples where the district had to respond and provide services and meet the law. Those are things that hit the budget and those can be things that cause you to dip into your reserves."

    Baxter-Jenkins pointed out that in 2011, when the fund had $361 million, part of that money came from federal stimulus funds to get the nation through the recession. "So it's not a valid balance to compare against."

    Remember, she said, that "the entire purpose of what we've done is to value teachers and to pay them a better salary. I want to note for the record, look at the salary scale. There is no teacher who is making a fortune. I don't think it's out of line and, in fact, Florida teachers are still paid pretty poorly compared to teachers in other places. Given what we have to work with in a state that doesn't adequately fund education, I am very proud of the scale we bargained, which values our new teachers, as well as our veteran teachers."

    As Eakins and his staff move forward, she urged them to consider other expenditures that are driving up spending. Managerial appointments and positions deserve a hard look. They might be well intended, she said, but they also cost money.

    "Budget crises are always a convenient thing while you're in the context of [contract] negotiation," she said.

    "There's a lot of things we can look at in a $3 billion budget where teachers do not have to be scapegoated in any way. Any way in which you want to make them the cause of the problem is not good for our schools and is not good for our district.

    "Look anywhere, read the New York Times recently. We're facing a nationwide teacher shortage. So making teachers or their salary the problem is not the way to go."...

    Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins is executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
  9. Hillsborough will look for new ways to evaluate superintendent


    It was one of the issues surrounding MaryEllen Elia's firing: How to evaluate the superintendent of Hillsborough schools.

    Elia was graded with a point formula that, critics said, made it difficult for her to get a less-than-satisfactory rating. Compounding that issue, her three-year contract rolled over annually for an additional year.

    Now, School Board members say, it's time for a change. They will meet 9 a.m. Tuesday in a workshop to talk about a new way to evaluate their superintendents, a position now held by Jeff Eakins....

  10. Greco principal responds to expulsion article


    This week I read the article titled "Hillsborough black students still expelled at higher rates, despite efforts to fix racial disparities." One thing that is alarmingly true is the fact that 58% of students recommended for expulsion are black, though they make up only 21% of the population. Reading that the overall number of students being expelled has steadily been reduced gives hope knowing that we are moving in the right direction....

    Yinka Alege, Principal, Greco Middle School
  11. Greco principal responds to expulsion report


    Last week, I read the article titled "Hillsborough black students still expelled at higher rates, despite efforts to fix racial disparities." One thing that is alarmingly true is the fact that 58% of students recommended for expulsion are black, though they make up only 21% of the population. Reading that the overall number of students being expelled has steadily been reduced gives hope knowing that we are moving in the right direction....

  12. Hillsborough 2015 climate surveys for your future use


    In the rush of education news of recent weeks, Gradebook has not yet posted the student and teacher climate surveys of 2015 from Hillsborough County.

    The school-by-school climate surveys are here

    The school-by-school teacher survey is here. ...

  13. The 'wheel' keeps turning in Hillsborough schools' sixth-grade schedules


    TAMPA — It has been a sixth-grade tradition for years: Learning to play Hot Cross Buns on the cello. Mastering Microsoft Word in computer class. Counting to 10 in Spanish.

    The sixth-grade "wheel" has introduced countless middle school students to creative and vocational subjects that they pursued throughout their education.

    Although the state discontinued the wheel this year because it did not correspond to the Florida Standards, the Hillsborough County School District has found a way to keep it alive....

  14. Eakins says Hillsborough school finances might get a look from outside auditor


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins has so many questions about the district's finances, he is considering hiring an outside auditor to look at the books.

    Speaking at Tuesday's School Board meeting, he said he has asked his head of procurement to research contracts used in other districts, and draft a request for proposals, in case he needs to take that step....

    Jeff Eakins is seeking to trim the budget by $75 million.
  15. Hillsborough school board set for first meeting since it learned of last year's $111M deficit


    The Hillsborough County School Board will meet at 3 p.m. today, the first time since Superintendent Jeff Eakins went public with news of last year's $111 million operational deficit.

    Will they discuss the issue in the sunshine? We'll live-tweet....