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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. Tampa Prep School leader is cleared to return to school


    TAMPA — The head of school at Tampa Bay Preparatory School is back on the job after an investigation stemming from a decades-old allegation of wrongdoing, the school announced this week.

    Kevin Plummer was on a leave of absence during the summer while the school looked into an allegation of "possible inappropriate behavior" at a different school where he was an intern more than 25 years ago....

  2. Following the Money: Workforce adjustments in Hillsborough are routine, district says


    Hillsborough district spokeswoman Tanya Arja responded Wednesday to rumors about job cuts with this statement:

    The ongoing adjustments are business as usual.

    Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez, in a meeting recently with the eight area superintendents, told them all to evaluate their schools and make sure that they were properly staffed. Or, as Arja put it, "ensure the units were properly allocated."...

  3. The real work begins at Mort's community school


    After months of ceremony, the first official work of the Mort Elementary Community School began with 16 mothers telling one another, "Good evening, everybody, my name is ...."

    Wednesday's session, conducted entirely in Spanish, was Mort's first Engaged Parents class, led by instructors from the local Hispanic Services Council.

    The group will gather at the north Hillsborough school every week to learn about resources in the public schools while their children are provided with dinner and activities in another room....

    Mort Elementary Principal Woodland Johnson greeted parents at a Spanish-language Parent Engagement class Wednesday. This was the first in a series as Mort becomes a community school.
  4. Operation Elevate


    Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins updated the School Board Tuesday on the district's seven high-needs Elevate schools. We'll post regular updates too, as the district has pledged to improve education at these seven long-struggling schools.

    For starters:

    Sulphur Springs K-8 School has a multi-level "house" system, as seen in the Harry Potter books and, closer to home, at Franklin Boys Preparatory School. The system is designed to encourage students to take more responsibility for the school and their behavior. "Each house has a color, a crest, a chant," Eakins said....

    Chief of Schools Harrison Peters at Potter Elementary on the first day of school. Superintendent Jeff Eakins described "a heavy lift" to fill teacher vacancies at Potter, where all students now have certified teachers.
  5. Hillsborough spreads the word on rules for religious groups volunteering in public schools


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County school employees gathered Monday for three hours of training that included this admonishment from district leader MaryLou Whaley:

    "It's never okay for a teacher to pray with a student."

    Not even if you know the family, said Whaley, director of community partnerships and philanthropy. "Any time you're seen as an authority, it crosses the line."

    Monday's session, one of six to bring administrators up to speed on an array of topics, included information on Hillsborough's new online activity fliers and how it now screens volunteers....

    Not everyone was thrilled when Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz gave away this T-shirt to more than 2,000 Hillsborough County teachers last year.
  6. Hillsborough School Board | District 7


    Hillsborough School Board | District 7

    Eight people are competing to replace Carol Kurdell, who is stepping down from her at-large seat. The diverse group includes repeat candidates and newcomers, parents and former teachers from neighborhoods extending from Riverview to New Tampa. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election....

    Hillsborough School Board D-7 candidates Joseph Caetano, Alan Clendenin, Carlos Frontela, Lynn Gray, Stanley Gray, Cathy James, Norene Miller,
  7. Hillsborough School Board | District 5


    Hillsborough School Board | District 5

    Five candidates are hoping to replace Doretha Edgecomb to represent east and central Tampa. Some of the district's poorest neighborhoods and most disadvantaged schools are in District 5, and the outcome of this contest will rest largely on which candidate appears most capable of advocating for children who need the most help. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election. ...

    Fourteen candidates for Hillsborough County School Board, for KYC's: Bill Person, Alicia Toler, Jacqueline Coffie Leeks, Tarance LeNoir, Tamara Shamburger, Lynetter Judge, Joe Jordan Robinson, Joseph Caetano, Alan Clendenin, Lynn Gray, Stanley Gray, Cathy James, Norene Copeland Miller, Carlos Frontela. We have file in the system of incumbents Susan Valdes and Cindy Stuart; and perennial candidate Randy Toler
  8. Hillsborough School Board | District 3, Cindy Stuart v. Alicia Toler


    Hillsborough School Board | District 3

    Cindy Stuart's upset win in 2012 was the first step in a shift in power that toppled Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Since then, Stuart has focused on serving her area schools while serving on other boards, including Safe and Sound Hillsborough and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. She is challenged by Alicia Toler, whose experience as the parent of an autistic child has made her an advocate for children with special needs. ...

  9. Hillsborough School Board | District 1, Bill Person v. Susan L. Valdes


    Hillsborough School Board | District 1

    Now seeking her fourth term, Susan Valdes presided over the leadership change that resulted in a new superintendent, Jeff Eakins. Critics are not convinced enough progress has been made. Bill Person, a retired school district administrator, believes both the administration and the elected board need improvement.

    About the job: School Board members, elected on a nonpartisan basis, are paid $42,000 a year for interacting with constituents and overseeing the district and its yearly budget of $2.8 billion. They meet about four times a month. District 1 includes Northwest Hillsborough and Town 'N Country....

    TP_342529_WALL_skulboard_3 (08/16/2011 Tampa) Hillsborough County School Board district one member Susan L. Valdes during their meeting on Tuesday, August 16, 2011. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]
  10. Hillsborough's new chief of schools: 'We have to act with haste'


    TAMPA — Harrison Peters remembers the 10th-grade teacher who said he wasn't college material, and the one who said, "I love you, I believe in you and I'm not going to allow you to fail."

    He shares those stories every chance he gets. "What we tell children, it matters," he says to teachers.

    That is, when he isn't quizzing them about what they do, why they do it and how exactly they will make sure it's working....

          Harrison Peters, the new chief of schools for Hillsborough County, meets second-graders at Potter Elementary in Tampa on Wednesday, the first day of class.
  11. Following the money: Hillsborough is shrinking the secretarial staff


    It's official: Hillsborough County's school district will  use more voicemail and cut back on its secretarial staff, in keeping with recommendations from the Gibson Consulting Group....

    Schools with 200 to 499 students will lose secretarial positions as the Hillsborough district seeks to economize.
  12. School district tells Hillsborough principal: Don't lead prayer circles


    TAMPA — A Riverview elementary school principal has received a warning letter from his bosses over a faculty prayer session that took place last week on his campus as the staff prepared for the new school year.

    The Aug. 4 letter from chief of staff Alberto Vazquez went out to principal Anthony Montoto, describing a video in which "you, the Assistant Principal and members of the Frost Elementary School staff were praying on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016 at the start of the day during pre-planning week."...

  13. Some Hillsborough teachers say new discipline policies aren't making schools more orderly


    TAMPA — Teachers say they are discouraged from writing discipline referrals. Students need more time with counselors. And, by some accounts, children are encouraged to take a few days off instead of serving an official suspension.

    As more than 200,000 Hillsborough County children return to school today, they will experience a well-intended discipline policy that, according to some teachers, still needs work....

    Photo illustration. [DIRK SHADD   |  Times]
  14. As first day nears, Hillsborough highlights Mort Elementary's new role as a 'community school'


    TAMPA — Kollin Spain, 14, wants to be a U.S. Navy Seal. Paola Rioja, 17, is on her way to becoming a mechanical engineer.

    Giovani Reyes, 12, wants to play middle school soccer. D'Satrius Nelson can recite his alphabet, which is appropriate because, at age 6, he is just entering first grade.

    Two days before the start of the school year, Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent Jeff Eakins introduced these and other students at a news conference with a message to the 27,000 employees now returning to work:...

    Hillsborough County School Superintendent Jeff Eakins, center, hosts an open house at Mort Elementary School for board members, politicians and dignitaries to kick off the 2016-17 school year Monday, Aug. 8, in Tampa.  Afterward, officials held a ribbon cutting to celebrate Mort Elementary's new 'community school' status. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]

  15. Hillsborough superintendent defends new approach for struggling Elevate schools


    TAMPA — Seven of Hillsborough County's lowest-performing schools will continue to get extra support even though the district eliminated a special department dedicated to their needs, said superintendent Jeff Eakins.

    Eakins addressed reporters at a news conference Wednesday where he insisted he is not retreating from goals he stated a year ago to make Booker T. Washington, Potter, Edison and Miles elementary as well as Sulphur Springs K-8, Sligh and McLane middle schools into centers of excellence instead of perpetual struggle....

    Super?in?ten?dent Jeff Eakins said at a press conference that the Elevate schools were still a priority.