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. Hillsborough County's schools growing, but not as fast as charters


    TAMPA — Charters are the big winners again this year as families continue to move into Hillsborough County and many opt for the tax-funded but independently operated public schools.

    Of the net growth of 4,736 students, about one-third were in charters. Their 12 percent growth rate was five times that of the district as a whole, which now serves 206,099 children.

    Nearly 700 students signed up for five new charter schools. In southeast Hillsborough's district-run schools, there was a similar surge in elementary school enrollment, with 632 more students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. A new elementary school, Thompson, opened in Ruskin to accommodate the growth, and at least two more are on the horizon....

  2. East Hillsborough School Board race has conservative focus


    BRANDON — There is a truism about eastern Hillsborough County: When it comes to politics, you can't tack too far to the right.

    That adage is being tested this fall as Terry Kemple, possibly Hillsborough's best-known Christian conservative activist, makes his third run for the School Board.

    He ran districtwide the first two times and lost, although he notes that in 2012 he would have prevailed if the votes were confined to District 4....

    Terry Kemple, 68, possibly Hillsborough’s best-known Christian conservative activist, ran districtwide for the School Board twice and lost, although he notes that in 2012 he would have prevailed if the votes were confined to District 4.
  3. Hillsborough's Florida Standards lessons will be on CBS Sunday


    It's known locally as Florida Standards. Elsewhere, it's still called Common Core, and it persists as a hot political topic.

    On Sunday morning, CBS news will air a program on the movement that was filmed largely in Hillsborough County.

    Scheduled tenatively to appear at 9 a.m., the show will include footage of a classroom at Rampello K-8 student and at a parent meeting at Grady Elementary School, one of many Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has held around the state....

    Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, shown here in Ruskin, has been travelling around Hillsborough County to answer questions about Common Core and the Florida Standards. Her appearance at Grady Elementary School will be shown on a CBS News show Sunday.
  4. About those alternatives to the Hillsborough ticket sale calls...


    Much as people might complain about those automated phone calls, in this case selling tickets on behalf of the Hillsborough County school district, the options aren't always popular either.

    Gradebook heard from Susan Whitaker, the mother of a high school student and a recent high school graduate, who did not like the suggestion of using paper flyers instead....

  5. Enrollment continues to grow in Hillsborough schools


    TAMPA — Students continue to fill seats in Hillsborough County's public schools, with enrollment climbing to 206,099 and charter school enrollment growing by 12 percent.

    The total, contained in a 20-day count that the school district conducts every year for planning purposes, marks a 2.3 percent increase over the 2013 count of 201,363.

    Enrollment in the county grew rapidly during the housing boom that began in the mid 1990s, stalled during the recession and has been rebounding for the past five years. The student population in 2009 was about 193,000....

  6. Hillsborough school district calls parents — selling Lightning tickets


    TAMPA — Middle school parents Cynthia and Mark Shellabarger were at home Saturday when they heard the phone ring. The readout said ROSSAC, the acronym for the Hillsborough County School District headquarters.

    They wondered if it was something important.

    You be the judge: The voice on the automated ParentLink call was inviting the family to buy discounted tickets for a Tampa Bay Lightning game....

    The Tampa Bay Lightning donates proceeds from school ticket nights to Supporting Student Success, a program that arranges social services for students.
  7. Better, worse schools to be black in Hillsborough


    The graphic raised eyebrows when it was displayed at Friday's task force meeting on racial disparities in discipline in Hillsborough County.

    Shown in color, it compared recorded incidents of "inappropriate behavior" among black students to those of whites and Hispanics. The numbers for black students are in the middle, and some reacted strongly to the Wharton High School example.

    But the graphic, while showing a stark comparison between the races, does not take into account the minority populations at those schools. Gradebook did a quick calculation that measured the likelihood of a black student at each of the 27 high schools to get in trouble for inappropriate behavior, a term that is sometimes considered vague and subjective....

  8. Harris, Shimberg bring decades of experience to Hillsborough School Board race


    TAMPA — Everybody knows the drill at Circle C Ranch. When the covers come off the platters of food, Petunia the pig wanders into the party.

    "She'll knock the table down," said Hillsborough County School Board candidate Sally Harris, while everybody at the rustic preschool tried to ignore the gathering storm clouds — and the fact that Harris is widely considered the underdog in the race....

    Sally Harris and her son David Cloud feed Petunia the pig at Harris’ meet-and-greet Wednesday at Circle C Ranch Academy. She is the owner of the Tampa preschool.
  9. All is quiet as Hillsborough charter talks continue


    Things have been quiet lately between the Hillsborough County school district and Charter Schools USA, and officials say that's a good thing.

    After Superintendent MaryEllen Elia put the organization on notice in July that she would terminate charters at Woodmont, Winthrop and Henderson Hammock, panic ensued. Elia calmed things down by promising parents the schools would not close...

  10. Hillsborough responds to two discrimination complaints


    In recent months the Tampa Bay Times reported on two ongoing federal investigations of the Hillsborough County school district, both involving allegations of discrimination.

    Here are some of the district's responses, one involving single-gender schools and the other on the issue of racial disparities in discipline and educational opportunity.

  11. Hillsborough County School District hires bus chief from Orlando


    TAMPA — Jim Beekman will be the new head of transportation for the Hillsborough County School District, taking charge of a large department coming out of months of turmoil.

    The School Board approved his selection unanimously Tuesday.

    Beekman has run the Orange County school bus system since 2010. He worked his way through Florida Southern College as a mechanic, said Hillsborough facilities chief Chris Farkas. He joined the Osceola County School District in 1983 and spent 25 years working in the transportation department there....

    Jim Beekman will have to deal with a driver shortage and a fleet that is one of the state’s oldest.
  12. Hillsborough board will meet at 3


    Who will be in the driver's seat when the Hillsborough County School Board names a new transportation chief? Gradebook will live-tweet this and other developments at today's meeting.

  13. Hillsborough school district names finalists for new transportation chief


    TAMPA — At its first meeting since the start of the new school year, the Hillsborough County School Board will name a transportation chief today.

    The new general manager will replace John Franklin, who resigned in April. Chris Farkas, the district's facilities chief, has been running the transportation department ever since.

    As of Monday, district officials had narrowed the field to five candidates and were having last-minute conversations with their first choice, whom they would not identify....

  14. Electronic grade reports and teacher aides remain under discussion in Hillsborough teacher talks


    Edsby, the Hillsborough County school district grade reporting system, is completely reliable.

    Or is it?

    Bradley Woods, principal of Wharton High School and father of two middle school students, says it is.

    Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers union and a mother of two, says it isn't.

    Back and forth they went Monday afternoon as the union and administration discussed a long-running issue: Should teachers be required to post regular updates on Edsby?...

  15. Hillsborough security department, now expanding, was investigated twice in last two years


    TAMPA — Around the time Hillsborough County school officials were debating whether to ramp up security after the Sandy Hook shootings, the department that would carry out the expansion was wrestling with its own problems.

    Allegations swirled about threats and bad management in the district’s security department, as well as the potentially improper practice of accepting gifts from vendors, according to a report released recently by the department’s new chief, John Newman....

    A Hillsborough County Schools officer stands in front of Cahoon Elementary School in Tampa after the shootings in Newtown, Conn in December 2012. A month later, superintendent MaryEllen Elia proposed placing guards in all elementary schools.