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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. The Cuban question unites and divides Tampa residents


    TAMPA — They come every Saturday morning, miles from their suburban homes to a Cuban-owned coffee shop in West Tampa. Men sit at one end of the table, women at the other.

    They discuss baseball, food and politics. At their last gathering, they pondered President Barack Obama's decision to end more than 50 years of Cold War policies toward Cuba.

    "I'm confused with Obama," said Jesus Esposito, who left Cuba in 1962. Cubans on the island today lack food, clothing, even toilet paper, he said. "And we're going to make relations because Obama thinks Raul Castro is going to give it to them? I don't believe it."...

    Jose Marti Park in Tampa features a statue of the revolutionary poet revered by both Communist and anti-Castro Cubans.
  2. Hillsborough's school bus system improving, but too slowly for critics


    TAMPA — The questions came fast and furious. What if a school bus driver let a wheelchair fall backward, but no child was injured? Should the driver be fired on the spot?

    Drivers, who gathered in a high school auditorium this week, complained about gaps in their training. Their new boss, Hillsborough County school transportation manager Jim Beekman, assured them they would get due process if something went wrong....

  3. A week of town hall meetings in Hillsborough


    So how hot was the rhetoric at Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin's town hall meeting?

    Tepid, if you compare it to meetings in the spring.

    Although she lamented that she was not allowed to advertise Thursday's Chamberlain High School gathering on ParentLink, Griffin was measured in her remarks about Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. So was board chairwoman Susan Valdes, even after some of the guests asked about Elia's future with the district....

    Griffin's meeting followed two evening meetings held by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to update bus drivers on transportation improvements.
  4. Community leader wants transparency in redevelopment talks that affect Tampa's urban schools


    Leaders of Tampa's black community are concerned about speculation that one or more urban schools could be razed for a baseball stadium.

    Pete Edwards, speaking on behalf of himself and others who are reluctant to come forward, called on the Hillsborough County school district to be transparent about conversations concerning Jefferson High School, LaVoy Exceptional Center, Roland Park K-8 School and, most recently, Booker T. Washington Elementary School....

    A 2013 assembly at historic Booker T. Washington Elementary School. While it's located in the middle of an attractive stadium site, school officials say such a move would draw opposition.
  5. Some call for changes in job evaluation system for Hillsborough teachers


    TAMPA — Four years into a teacher evaluation system touted as one of the best in the state, some Hillsborough County teachers and School Board members are calling for change.

    Three teachers who were told over a year ago they'd be fired for subpar ratings have not yet had termination hearings. Two more were on the list, but one retired and one resigned. And some board members are frustrated because lawyers say the firing decisions cannot be reversed....

  6. Defenders of Hillsborough schools chief speak out on her behalf


    TAMPA — No one has officially called for a new superintendent for the Hillsborough County Schools. But at Tuesday's School Board meeting there were signs of a campaign to keep her on the job or, absent that, prepare for succession.

    Elizabeth Fowler and Sheff Crowder, both active in nonprofit and philanthropic circles, spoke of MaryEllen Elia's contributions to the school district and her record of working with the community....

    Hillsborough schools chief MaryEllen Elia, now in her 10th year on the job, has laughed off suggestions that she might leave.
  7. Hillsborough task force faces question of sunshine


    This is the time of year when the Hillsborough County school district sends out sunshine notices for events that might attract two or more School Board members, although they may or may not be very newsworthy.

    Some are holiday events.

    Others involve issues of public interest -- such as race.

    Members of the District Community Task Force, which was formed after a board workshop in May 2013 about the large numbers of black male students who are suspended from school, have had three recent meetings that included media. Before that they met for about a year, off and on, without press coverage....

    Board members Melissa Snively and Doretha Edgecomb spoke with District Community Task Force facilitator Glen Gilzean at Friday's meeting on minority student discipline. The Tampa Bay Times has asked that all these meetings be noticed and held in the sunshine.
  8. Changing tardiness policies could reduce racial disparities in school discipline, panel says


    TAMPA — Tardiness is the second most common cause for discipline in the Hillsborough County Public Schools. Black and Hispanic students are disciplined more often than white students.

    So it stands to reason, community leaders say, that rethinking tardiness policies could reduce the discipline statistics and the disparity.

    More relaxed policies also could help students spend more time in class instead of in the school's front office. "Your punishment for not being there is to not be there even more," said Michael Pheneger of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is also a member of a school district task force on race and discipline....

  9. Contest in Hillsborough will honor local black leaders


    In advance of Black History Month, the Hillsborough County school district is organizing a competition for students who with to recognize local African American leaders.

    Students in grades 3 to 12 can choose from three categories: literature, performing arts or visual arts. Entries will be judged on originality, creativity, and how well the student used his or her artistic vision to portray the theme....

  10. Hillsborough in the sunshine


    The public is invited to these Hillsborough County events, including the minority task force meeting today from 1:30 to 3:30, which we will live tweet. It's at the Instructional Services Center, 2920 N 40th Street.

    The others include:

    6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8. Community meeting for high school boundary changes, Riverview High School Cafeteria, 11311 Boyette Road....

  11. Short-tempered drafting teacher faces suspension at Tampa Bay Tech


    TAMPA — Ronald Brill is a highly skilled draftsman and Navy veteran, according to a biography on the website of Tampa Bay Technical High School.

    But the school's drafting teacher also has a temper, so bad that the Hillsborough County School District wants him out of the classroom.

    Officials say on Sept. 16, the frustrated teacher grabbed a pencil case from a student's desk and threw it against a wall. Just one day earlier, they said, he was counseled for using profanity with another student....

  12. New Hillsborough charter school will teach kids Spanish


    Backers of a planned charter school in South Tampa say they'll teach elementary students Spanish along with their core studies.

    The Excelsior Prep Charter School, which is up for approval at Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board meeting, will serve grades K-5.

    It's just one of two charter schools district staff have recommended to be greenlighted this year. The other, Tampa Academy of Math and Science, is a replication of the successful Valrico Lake Advantage Academy. The new school, which has not yet selected a location, will serve grades K-8....

  13. Town hall meetings return to Hillsborough


    Get ready for the return of the town hall meeting in Hillsborough.

    School Board member April Griffin said Wednesday she is putting finishing touches on a meeting to take place 6 p.m. on Dec. 18 at Chamberlain High School.

    "I want to circle back to transportation, to get input and feedback on the changes we have made," said Griffin, who organized a series of meetings early this year that attracted more than 100 employees, many from the ranks of school bus drivers. "Also, I want to hear from people about other important issues that need to be addressed by the board."...

    Meetings such as this one in Valrico attracted dozens of transportation employees
  14. Hillsborough trade schools go from centers to colleges


    Hillsborough County's technical centers, where adults train to become nurses, car mechanics and emergency medical technicians, will get a name change, subject to a vote Tuesday by the school board.

    Aparicio-Levy, Brewster, Erwin, and Learey are now called technical centers. The change would make them technical colleges.

    This is happening for a number of reasons.

    First, the Council on Occupational Education (COE), which accredits the programs, has said the schools can be called colleges....

  15. Alonso High and two other Hillsborough schools are due for new principals


    Alonso High School is scheduled to get a new principal Tuesday to replace Lou Diaz, who is retiring after 28 years with the Hillsborough County School District.

    Diaz, a 1976 graduate of the University of Tampa, is 61.

    Also on the agenda to get new principals at Tuesday's meeting are Clark Elementary School, which just lost Gaye Holt to Hunter's Green Elementary; and Thonotasassa Elementary, where Cheryl Dafeldecker is retiring at 58....

    Lou Diaz, principal of Alonso High School, is retiring.