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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. Hillsborough faces strong competition for top talent as superintendent search begins


    TAMPA — As Hillsborough County School Board members get ready to search for a new superintendent, they sound confident they'll attract some top candidates.

    "They will want to come to Tampa, Florida," board member Sally Harris predicted. "We are the eighth-largest school district in the country. Why wouldn't you apply for this job if you have ambition?"

    But the board, which dismissed MaryEllen Elia on Jan. 20, faces a highly competitive market and a small pool of candidates qualified and willing to lead a large, urban school system....

  2. Who's filling Hillsborough's charter schools?


    About 15,000 Hillsborough County public school children now attend charter schools, which amounts to roughly 7.5 percent of the district's population. While charters get tax money, they are operated independently and compete with district-run schools for both dollars and students.

    Where do the kids come from and where do they go?

    Statistics released by the district this week answer those questions in great detail, showing what district schools the children would be assigned to, and breaking the transfers down by race.

    Two of the three schools operated by Charter Schools USA of Fort Lauderdale have attracted some of the largest migrations.

    Henderson Hammock, a K-8 Charter Schools USA school in the Citrus Park area, has picked up 129 students who were zoned for Bellamy Elementary, 123 from Pierce Middle School and 105 from Cannella Elementary. Also in that end of the district, 135 students zoned for Lowery Elementary have enrolled in Hillsborough Academy of Math and Science.

    It's a similar picture in Bloomingdale, where Winthrop Charter has 158 kids zoned for Ippolito Elementary, 114 for Giunta Middle and 110 from McLane Middle.

    Hundreds of kids are opting out of Eisenhower Middle School in southern Hillsborough, with 140 attending Bell Creek Academy and 116 at Literacy Leadership Technical Academy.

    Terrace Community School has long been a big hit in New Tampa, attracting 132 students zoned for Liberty Middle and 146 from Benito Middle....

    Henderson Hammock Charter School in Citrus Park has more than 100 students zoned for each of these district-run schools: Cannella Elementary, Bellamy Elementary and Pierce Middle School.
  3. Hillsborough will hold community meetings on discipline


    This from the Hillsborough County school district Friday morning:

    Hillsborough County Public Schools will host eight Community Discipline Chats in areas throughout the county for parents and the community to review and provide input on 2014-2015 first semester in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and alternative to out-of-school suspension data.  ...

  4. Competition emerges in the Hillsborough teacher's union election


    Jean Clements, who has served as the head of Hillsborough's teachers union for more years than MaryEllen Elia has been superintendent, has competition in the coming election.

    Elementary teacher Amy Gabriel announced her candidacy in December for the election, which begins Feb. 15.

    A 10-year employee of the district, Gabriel teachers fourth grade at Twin Lakes Elementary School. Clements taught special education and was a department head at Plant High School before she became a full-time union leader in 2002....

    Teacher Amy Gabriel is challenging Hillsborough teachers union leader Jean Clements in the Feb. 15 election.
  5. Hillsborough School Board to discuss Elia's successor


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board will take its first steps Tuesday toward naming a successor to Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, whose contract ends June 30.

    Chairwoman Susan Valdes has placed an item on the agenda calling for a "discussion of transition and future leadership of the district."

    Valdes said she used broad terms to encompass everything from lining up a search firm to suggesting someone who can become the interim superintendent on July 1....

    MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough’s school superintendent since 2005, will leave for vacation on March 6. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times] 
  6. Hillsborough students grill school board about learning, not politics


    TAMPA — In a week when news out of the Hillsborough County School District was all about politics and power plays, 94 high school students turned out to a School Board meeting Tuesday and asked about — education.

    Armani Humbert of Middleton High School said students involved in extracurricular activities have trouble completing their required community service hours. Cassandra Vietas of Robinson High School asked about honors credits for students who transfer from other districts, an issue that affects many military families....

    Tatiana Larry, a senior at Middleton High School, asks a question of the Hillsborough County School Board at Tuesday’s annual student forum. None of the 94 students asked about superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s dismissal.
  7. Social media sites continue to assess Elia's firing


    There are still a lot of raw feelings surrounding the termination on Jan. 20 of Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia's contract.

    This Facebook page popped up in the last day or so, raising questions about what was behind School Board member Sally Harris's swing vote.

    In the days before the 4-3 vote was taken, supporters of Elia created this page. It is still active.

  8. Next we will hear from Hillsborough's students


    In all the excitement Tuesday night, the Hillsborough County School Board forgot to vote on the consent agenda.

    So they've called a meeting 2:45 p.m. this Tuesday to do just that.

    At 3 p.m., they will have their yearly student forum. Conceived by former board member Cecile Essrig, the forum gathers three students from each of the district's high schools and career centers. Typically they are student government leaders and other top students....

  9. Frustration with superintendent MaryEllen Elia bubbled over


    TAMPA — Surrounded by red-wearing supporters of Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Michael Pheneger wondered Tuesday night if School Board members would have the votes to fire her.

    "Apparently they did," said Pheneger of the American Civil Liberties Union. His reaction: "I hope her departure leads to more openness in the way the system runs."

    In political and business circles, the reaction to the board's 4-3 vote to terminate Elia's contract has been overwhelmingly negative. The prevailing wisdom is that Elia is a good school leader with the title of state Superintendent of the Year to prove it, that a board majority was being petty, and that the move was rash, costing taxpayers more than $1 million to break her contract....

    The board terminated Elia’s contract with a 4-3 vote last week. Although Elia had many supporters, some parents and educators criticized her management style and welcomed her dismissal. Board members were careful not to say anything defamatory about Elia’s performance.
  10. Evaluations of Superintendent Elia tell some of the story


    People are stunned by the Hillsborough County School Board's 4-3 vote this week to buy out the contract of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. As they terminated her contract without cause, members have been careful not to disparage Elia publicly for fear of being sued.

    So what is the back story? And why did newcomer Sally Harris vote to fire Elia?

    Harris spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Sue Carlton, who gave this report....

    Shown: Board member Sally Harris, who voted yes for Elia's termination; Melissa Snively, who voted no; Susan Valdes, who voted yes; Doretha Edgecomb, who voted no; and board attorney Jim Porter
  11. High school students give feedback on minority discipline, testing and more


    TAMPA — Give him something interesting to do and he'll get to class on time, said Cornelius McClinton of Jefferson High School.

    But if he knows what to expect, and it's a teacher droning on, "I'm tardy to class because I already know what we're doing," he said Friday. "I need something that motivates me to come to class."

    McClinton, 17, is one of a dozen students who have been in trouble, turned things around and shared their perspective with a task force on minority student discipline in Hillsborough County public schools....

    Seniors Javanta Hall, left, and Patrick Scott were among the students who spoke to the Hillsborough County School District’s task force on minority student discipline Friday at Jefferson High School in Tampa.
  12. Whether or not you liked Hillsborough schools chief MaryEllen Elia, she's gone — so what's next?


    TAMPA — As the shock of schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia's firing is felt throughout Hillsborough County and beyond, people are wondering: What's next?

    No plan of succession was discussed at Tuesday's School Board meeting. And word that Elia's contract was terminated without cause by a 4-3 vote, despite her accomplishments and accolades, has some educators wondering who will want to take her place....

    CAPTION (12/12/05 - TAMPA):  (3) Cathy Valdes (cq Times files) at the "Joint Task Force for School Capacity, Funding, & the Timing of Growth" meeting on Monday (12/12/05). SUMMARY: For WilsonMiller story. TIMES PHOTO by:  Ken Helle
  13. Gates Foundation on Hillsborough and Elia


    Everybody is going on the record regarding the firing of Hillsborough County superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

    So Gradebook reached out to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which committed $100 million to the district's Empowering Effective Teachers program.

    Here is the response from Vicki Phillips, the foundation's director of education and college readiness:

    "Over the last five years, as a result of continuing collaboration among the district, union and community, Hillsborough has developed one of the most innovative and comprehensive teacher development and support programs in the country. Superintendent Elia has been recognized in Florida and nationally for her leadership in these efforts. The foundation chose to invest in Hillsborough because of its active, engaged and caring community, including its teachers and administrators, and we remain committed to Hillsborough as long as its leaders, teachers and parents are committed to the work. As we've always said, ensuring there is an effective teacher in every classroom is a critical part of improving education for each and every student."...

    Bill Gates at Jefferson High School
  14. What ousted Hillsborough schools chief MaryEllen Elia told her employees today


    Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia sent this message out to her employees at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday:


    Last night the School Board voted to terminate my contract without cause. As a result, my last day on the job as Superintendent of this wonderful school district will be March 5.

    I want to thank the Board for taking a stand and providing clarity on an issue that has become a tremendous distraction for our schools, our employees, and for the community. I'm not happy with the outcome, but perhaps this will enable everyone to move forward....

    Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, dismissed by the Hillsborough School Board Tuesday, told employees Wednesday that she is not retiring, she appreciates her years leading the school district, and the issue of her future can now be removed as a distraction.
  15. New Hillsborough principals


    We are awaiting a vote on these principal appointments at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting:

    • Steven Sims, 47, Lamb Elementary School. Sims joined the district in 1992, working most recently as principal of Collins Elementary School.

    • Kilsys Garcia, 36, Morgan Woods Elementary. Garcia has been with the district since 2002. She's now assistant principal at Morgan Woods. She replaces Jonathan Barlar, who was moved to Thonotosassa....