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. More kids in Hillsborough schools


    Hillsborough County's school district is on track to grow again, according to first-day enrollment numbers.

    The district said 190,814 students reported to school, up nearly 4,000 from the first day of school in 2013. While it's too soon to say how many were in charter schools and how many in district-run schools, the district expects both populations to grow, reaching a total of approximately 205,000 when families return from summer vacations.

    Enrollment has been growing for the past three years.

    The district also was pleased with its new relationship with kelly Services, which now provides substitute teachers. The system filled 99.6 percent of openings on Tuesday, up from less than 80 percent under the old system....

  2. Charter schools, too, celebrate higher grades in Hillsborough


    The Hillsborough County school district made a big fuss over schools that boosted their state grades by more than one letter. Of particular note were Seminole and Bailey elementary schools, which rose from D to A grades. It was such an accomplishment that Superintendent MaryEllen Elia chose Bailey as the site for her back-to-school news conference on Friday.

    But they weren't the only ones.

    Gradebook heard this week from the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, an Immokalee-based organization that operates two charter schools in Hillsborough County.

    RCMA Wimauma Academy jumped from a D to an A this year. And the newer middle school, RCMA Leadership Academy, rose from a C to an A.

    "The achievements of RCMA Wimauma Academy may be more noteworthy than either Seminole or Bailey," said Bill Coats, the organization's spokesman and a onetime reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. "Our school is 100 percent Hispanic, dominated by the children of low-income farmworkers; 94 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. Nearly all speak English as a second language. These kids are overcoming myriad disadvantages to excel."

    Combined, the two schools served 274 students last year, according to state records.

    Founded in 1965 by volunteers of the Mennonite Church, RCMA was organized to provide quality child care in southern Miami-Dade County while parents worked in the fields. Since then it has grown to serve approximately 7,000 children in more than 70 child care centers and schools....

  3. Hillsborough County School Board, District 6


    School Board | District 6

    Seven challengers are up against April Griffin, who's trying for her third term in office. They include a college student, a founder of the U.S. Green Party, a special-education professor and a member of the Temple Terrace City Council. Griffin has a high profile, most recently for having been at the forefront of the district's efforts to improve school transportation. She has also sparred with superintendent MaryEllen Elia, making for tense meetings of the seven-member board. Marlene Sokol, Times staff writer...

    Alison McGillivray Vernandez
  4. Hillsborough County School Board, District 4


    School Board | District 4

    Two of the three candidates for the east Hillsborough County seat are well-known in the community, Terry Kemple for his conservative activism and Melissa Snively for her leadership in the business community. The third, Dee Prether, is an enthusiastic parent who's going door to door, trying to boost her profile. The community is largely conservative, giving all three candidates points for their views against Common Core. Stacy White, who held the position since 2010, is now running for Hillsborough County Commission....

    Terry Kemple
  5. Hillsborough County School Board, District 2


    School Board | District 2

    The three candidates for the District 2 seat Candy Olson will vacate live in South Tampa, but that's about all they have in common. Sally Harris owns a preschool; Michelle Popp Shimberg is a longtime school volunteer and community leader; and former math teacher Michael Weston is an outspoken advocate for special-needs students and overall reform in the school district administration. Marlene Sokol, Times staff writer...

    Popp Shimberg
  6. Hillsborough board discussion clarifies positions on charter schools


    Here are a few take-aways from Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board discussion on Henderson Hammock, Woodmont and Winthrop charter schools. It can be seen here. Find the 8/12 meeting in the index to the right. The discussion begins at minute 7:29 and lasts roughly 30 minutes.

    1. Make no mistake: Charter Schools USA, the management company, is a factor in the controversy. "We believe that the out of town, for profit company is operating the schools, not the local charter boards," said Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Several board members mentioned the company as well.

    2. The philosophy of the district is as follows: Charter schools should be run by local boards with ties to the community. One reason: The district sometimes gets complaints about charter schools, and it's easier to resolve them through conversations with local leaders. What's more, the relationship works better for both sides when it is collaborative from the beginning. Hillsborough has more than 40 charter schools and generally this system works well.

    3. Elia also said the district has tried several times to meet with the boards running the three Charter Schools USA schools, to no avail. But that should change soon.

    4. Board member Candy Olson made reference to op-ed pieces that have appeared in the newspapers. Clearly she was referring to the MacDill Air Force Base application, which also involves Charter Schools USA.

    5. Several members used the term "political," although no one openly mentioned partisan politics. Rather, they talked about charter school operators approaching and sometimes supporting board members who are running for office. Member April Griffin, the only one seeking re-election, thought this was a smack at her; Olson said it was not.

    6. No one on the board appreciated hearing about the conflict through the media. They asked Elia to keep them informed through phone calls, emails and during the suspended agenda portion of the Tuesday board meetings. Elia stopped short of saying, or speculating, how the July 29 90-day warning letter wound up in a television newscast on July 31.

    7. Last but not least, Elia and the board members repeated their assurance that the three schools will not close this year. They do not want to disrupt education for the more than 2,000 students. Nor do they want to disrupt the local schools that would have to receive them if they were to shut down....

  7. Charter schools to Hillsborough: Yes, we want a hearing


    Boards overseeing three charter schools in Hillsborough County told the district Monday they want a hearing to contest superintendent MaryEllen Elia's move to terminate their charters.

    Letters from the Florida Charter Educational Foundation and the Bay Area Charter Foundation say that, despite the district's assertions, there is nothing wrong with the governance at Henderson Hammock, Woodmont and Winthrop, all managed by the for-profit Charter Schools USA....

    Henderson Hammock Charter School
  8. Blog

  9. Mailer slams Shah in Hillsborough


    When asked last month if her Indian heritage would help or hurt her chances for a Hillsborough County School Board seat, Dipa Shah said, "At the end of the day, I'm hoping that it will be a wash. I've grown up in this country and I've felt discrimination my entire life."

    The obvious advantage is the support Shah has from the Indian community. They've embraced her and hosted fundraisers that help make her the top-grossing candidate in a field of 14. There's also the reputation Indian families have for helping their children succeed in school, particularly in math and sciences.

    The disadvantages?

    Witness this mailer that Shah's campaign manager forwarded to Gradebook on Saturday. It accuses Shah of being a special-interest candidate who, like others from ethnic minorities, will "indoctrinate our children with their liberal agenda!"

    The return address lists the Conservative Values Coalition of Florida, a political organization based in Central Florida. Gradebook tried to contact Michael Millner, treasurer of the group. His wife, Debbie Millner, said through an email that her husband has no involvement in the election in Hillsborough. Nor, she added, does committee chairwoman Carmela Falcone....

  10. Hillsborough principals confident they can add reading time


    TAMPA — Extra reading time, a state mandate that has some school districts in knots, has been an easier adjustment in Hillsborough County, administrators say.

    While the state's list of 300 low-performing schools includes 26 in Hillsborough, officials say they can adjust to the new requirements without too much disruption.

    The list, based on reading scores, represents an expansion of the state effort, which used to target 100 schools for an additional daily hour of reading. ...

  11. Charter school groups to meet with Hillsborough officials


    TAMPA — Two groups that run charter schools in Hillsborough County agreed Friday to meet with the district, a step that could resolve a conflict affecting three schools.

    After meeting this week, the Florida Charter Educational Foundation and Bay Area Charter Foundation said they're willing to have face-to-face discussions about their roles at the Woodmont, Winthrop and Henderson Hammock schools....

  12. Charter boards say they'll meet with Hillsborough district


    There's been more progress in an ongoing conflict between the Hillsborough County school district and boards of schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

    Superintendent MaryEllen Elia assured parents Thursday that she will not shut down the three Hillsborough schools, even if the district revokes the charters of Woodmont, Henderson Hammock and Winthrop, affecting more than 2,000 students....

    Henderson Hammock in Citrus Park is one of three Hillsborough schools affected by a disagreement between the district and boards that work with Charter Schools USA.
  13. Elia assures parents three charter schools under scrutiny will not close this year


    TAMPA — Responding to concerned parents who learned last week that the Hillsborough County school district is challenging the legality of three charter schools, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia assured them Thursday that the schools will not close.

    "We are committed to keeping the schools open for the remainder of the school year," Elia wrote in a letter to parents. "Under no circumstances will we disrupt the education of students."...

  14. About Stacy White's voting record on the Hillsborough school board...


    Stacy White is not having an easy time in his bid for the seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. Opponents are questioning his bona fides as an effective watchdog for the school district.

    Smarting from an attack ad, he asked us to set the record straight on a couple of issues.

    Yes, White voted against member April Griffin's idea to hire an auditor who would report directly to the school board. The first time he voted no, he said he had concerns about the legality of the arrangement. This did not please Griffin, who had hoped for his support. The second time, he said he did not want to support the hiring of a bureaucrat....

    Hillsborough school board member and county commission candidate Stacy White
  15. School Board gives higher marks this year to superintendent Elia


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia turned in an above-satisfactory performance this year, board members say in evaluations that are considerably more generous than in 2013.

    Unlike last year's exercise — in which School Board members Susan Valdes and April Griffin gave Elia the lowest ratings possible — the reports the board will consider next week acknowledge progress that Elia has made in improving transportation and special education, while imploring her to work on employee morale and racial disparities in discipline....