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. New teachers are welcomed to Hillsborough County


    TAMPA — Sara Malinka and Autumn McCarty sat in the nosebleed seats of the Armwood High School auditorium as leaders of the nation's eighth-largest school district welcomed them into the fold.

    The message Wednesday was the same through an hour of speeches: It's different in Hillsborough County. Teachers and administrators collaborate. New teachers get all the support they could possibly want....

  2. New teachers are welcomed in Hillsborough Wednesday


    Close to 1,000 new teachers have been training all week at Armwood High School, and Wednesday morning they are officially welcomed into the Hilllsborough County school district.

    If tradition holds, they'll be told to make the most of the Gates-funded mentoring program. They'll be warned not to be alone in a room with a student, or friend kids on Facebook.

    And, unlike in other districts, bosses will urge these teachers to join the union....

    New teachers' welcome, 2013
  3. Hillsborough School District seeks to lessen racial disparities


    As the Hillsborough County School District develops new ways to reach out to students who are at risk of failing or dropping out, they are doing so amid a chorus of concern about racial disparities.

    Speakers at Tuesday's meeting lined up to address the board about what is known widely as the school-to-prison pipeline. The theory holds that schools, through their disciplinary practices, are putting many students on the road to a life in the criminal justice system, particularly minorities....

  4. Hillsborough district and critics seek to ease racial disparities


    As the Hillsborough County school district develops new ways to reach out to students who are at risk of failing or dropping out, they are doing so amid a chorus of concern about racial disparities.

    Speakers at Tuesday's meeting lined up to address the board about what is known widely as the school-to-prison pipeline. The theory holds that schools, through their disciplinary practices, particularly affecting minority children, are putting many students on the road to a life in the criminal justice system....

  5. New principals are named in Hillsborough


    The Hillsborough County School Board named these new principals on Tuesday:

    * Danielle Shotwell to Riverview High School. Shotwell joined the district in 1996, working at Brandon, Sickles, Riverview and Bloomingdale high schools before she was named principal of Eisenhower Middle School in 2012.

    * Paul Gansemer to Brewster Technical Center from Orange Grove Middle Magnet.

    * Angela Vickers to North Tampa Alternative from Sligh Middle School....

    Danielle Shotwell
  6. "Student success" gets a leader in Hillsborough


    Speaking at the top of Tuesday's School Board meeting, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she is moving ahead with plans to create student success teams that will focus on at-risk students.

    Agenda documents show that person will be Shaylia McRae, subject to a board vote. McRae joined the district in 1998. She worked at Franklin Middle School before it was converted to the all-boy format; Plant High and Martinez Middle School, where she was principal until 2011. Since then she has been a principal coach....

  7. Another candidate forum in Hillsborough


    Rounding out our list of upcoming public forums featuring candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board:

    1. Aug. 3, 7 a.m., Idlewild Baptist Church, Lutz

    2. Aug. 5, 5:30 p.m., Bell Shoals Baptist Church, Brandon.

    3. Aug. 10, 2 p.m., John Germany Public Library, downtown Tampa. This one is hosted by the East Hillsborough Democratic Club.

  8. Candidate forums in Hillsborough County


    Campaigns are heating up for three Hillsborough County School Board seats and candidate forums are planned throughout the month, in advance of the Aug. 26 primary.

    Two big ones are coming up soon: Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Aug. 3 at 7 a.m.. (yes, that's a.m., it's a morning meet-and-greet followed by questions for the candidates); and Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon on Aug. 5 at 5:30 p.m.
    Organizers of other events are free to publicize them here. Email


    Ten of the 14 Hillsborough School Board candidates addressed the Tiger Bay Club on June 20.
  9. Union wants a pay bump for Hillsborough school aides


    The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association wants to give classroom aides, including those who care for special-needs children, a $1.68-an-hour raise.

    The proposal is just one of many under discussion as the union and the Hillsborough school district negotiate this year's contract changes.

    The union is arguing for the bump in pay to bring paraprofessionals up to a living wage. Those at the lowest tier, who are paid $8.42 an hour, earn $11,257 a year according to the union's calculations. That's below the federal poverty level for even a single person, which is $11,670. Under the proposed plan, which calls for a $10.10 starting wage, they would earn $13,503. The union also wants to accelerate the employees' pay increases over the years. That entry-level aide could advance to $17.23 an hour in 22 years instead of 32....

    The Hillsborough school district and teacher's union have been in negotiations all week.
  10. Get ready: The School Board auditor issue is coming back in Hillsborough


    For more than a year, off and on, members of the Hillsborough County School Board have debated whether they should hire their own auditor.

    Sure, in a budget of $2.8-billion, there are audits galore. But the inhouse auditors and accountants answer to the superintendent and her staff.

    Some board members want to see audits that are more independent.

    The idea, raised by member April Griffin when she was chair, failed 4-3 in early 2013. It was dormant for awhile....

  11. Hillsborough's McLane Middle School sends scores of students to expulsion hearings


    McLane Middle School recommended 35 students for expulsion this past year - far more than any other school in Hillsborough County, according to a report that went out to the School Board this week.

    To put that number in perspective, it's rougly one in every 26 students. Districtwide, including special education students who cannot be expelled, the number works out to one in every 400.

    McLane has been in Brandon, in one form or another, for a full century. In addition to local students, the district buses students to McLane from east Tampa. The school has a STEM program and a competitive robotics team. The school's poverty rate, measured by participation in the free lunch program, is 86 percent, and the minority population is 84 percent according to the state.

    Looking at the past year's climate surveys, conditions at McLane are not up to par with the rest of the district. The overall student satisfaction rate was 54 percent, compared with 75 percent districtwide. Only 23 percent of McLane's students felt safe, compared with 69 percent districtwide. Teachers gave the school a 54 percent approval rate, compared with 77 percent for all middle schools and 80 percent districtwide. The numbers were especially low in student conduct, with only 3 percent of teachers agreeing with the statement: "Students at this school follow rules of conduct."

    Districtwide, the number of expulsion hearings dropped this year, a trend that has existed for the last five years. And the majority (345) were recommended for a change of placement. Another 109 could not be expelled because they are in special education.

    Of the remaining 391, 10 were in elementary school, all male and seven of them African-American. The largest number, 292, were in middle schools. Of that group, 56 percent (164) were black. In the high schools, the 164 students recommended for expulsion included 69 who were black -- or 42 percent. Wharton High had the most at 15, followed by Chamberlain, which had 12. Drugs were the most common cause of an expulsion hearing in high school while in middle school it was a category called "continuous disruptive."...

  12. Five more Hillsborough teachers could be fired over missing credentials


    TAMPA — Five more teachers face the ax in Hillsborough County, accused of failing to get the credentials they needed to instruct students who are learning English.

    The five, who will be suspended without pay subject to a School Board vote on Tuesday, join five more whom the board suspended on July 15, an interim step toward firing.

    In all 10 cases, the teachers are accused of violating an agreement with the League of United Latin American Citizens that calls for teachers to be trained to assist students whose first language is not English....

  13. Charter school growth means $12 million less for Hillsborough school district


    TAMPA — The continued exodus of public school children for publicly funded charters is not expected to end, and it has some Hillsborough County school district officials concerned.

    Charter schools project they will serve 18,948 students when classes resume in August, according to estimates given Monday at contract talks between the district and the teachers union.

    If that number holds — and charter schools director Jenna Hodgens is somewhat skeptical — it will represent a sharp increase from the 14,780 reported in September 2013....

  14. Hillsborough joins nationwide pledge to close achievement gap


    Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, along with School Board members Doretha Edgecomb and Candy Olson, were among a group of educators in Washington D.C. Monday as President Obama announced a commitment to prepare African American and Hispanic male students for college and careers. Along with the Council of the Great City Schools, the White House also pledged to reduce the disproportionate number of minority students who drop out or are suspended.

    “Hillsborough County Public Schools is committed to this pledge. We are working with our administrators and teachers to guarantee full opportunities for student success,” said Elia said. This year the district is using student success teams, consisting of administrators, counselors and special education staff, to assist with this effort.

     In “A Pledge by America’s Great City Schools,” each of the 60 urban school systems committed to carrying out 11 specific actions, which include:

    •Ensuring that pre-school efforts better serve African-American and Hispanic males and their academic and social development;
    •Adopting and implementing elementary and middle school efforts to increase “the pipeline” of African-American and Hispanic males who are on track to succeed in high school, and increasing the numbers participating in advanced placement, honors, and gifted and talented programs;
    •Keeping data and establishing protocols to monitor the progress and intervene at the earliest warning signs of problems;
    •Reducing the disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic males who are absent, suspended, expelled, or placed inappropriately in special education classes; and
    •Working to transform high schools with low graduation rates and striving to increase the numbers of African-American and Hispanic males and others who complete the FAFSA forms for college aid.

    There is also a partnership to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic males participating and succeeding in Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

  15. Superintendent's road show explains Florida's "Common Core"


    RUSKIN — The crowd includes a military mom who just moved from the West Coast, an anxious mom whose kids are getting a lot of writing assignments and a retired teacher with questions from the Internet about an educational movement called Common Core.

    It has been raining buckets. But guests have filled all 160 seats in the Hillsborough Community College meeting room.

    Now it's up to school superintendent MaryEllen Elia to calm their fears....

    MaryEllen Elia speaks to families during a Q & A session about Florida Standards also known as Common Core at HCC SouthShore Campus in Ruskin on Wednesday.