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'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."...

  2. 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....

  3. 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....

  4. 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.

  5. 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 openly acknowl­edges the hurdles that await with Florida Standards.
  6. Students and teachers in Hillsborough will get more training to combat sexual harassment


    TAMPA — Students in Hills­borough County either don't know how to respond to sexual harassment or were confused this year when asked if they knew.

    Either way, the district is taking steps to remedy the problem.

    Officials will question a sample of students when they return to school to try to find out why only 41.7 percent agreed with the survey statement: "Students at this school know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior."...

  7. School board candidate Kemple on gay rights


    It's no secret that Terry Kemple, who is running for a Hillsborough County School Board seat in east Hillsborough, espouses conservative views.

    Here's the statement his organization released on Tuesday, in response to a news report that a majority on the Hillsborough County Commission favor protections against job discrimination based on sexual orientation.


    Terry Kemple, President, Community Issues Council ...

  8. No new principals in Hillsborough, but lots of transfers


    Jonathan Grantham's leadership team at Turner-Bartels K-8 is shaping up.

    The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday approved these appointments to the district's  newest K-8 school:

    • Mary Dance, Student Intervention Specialst, moving from Wharton High School.
    • Samuel Bullock, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs, from Young Middle.
    • Courtney Hastings, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs, former peer evaluator.
    • Stacy Cervone, Assistant Principal for Elementary Instruction, already at Turner.
    • Lara Barone, Assistant Principal for Elementary Instruction, from Roland Park K-8.

    The New Tampa school represents a merger of an existing elementary and middle school....

  9. Hefty campaign accounts for Hillsborough School Board races seen as coincidence, not a trend


    TAMPA — It was a big deal in 2006 when Hillsborough County school administrator Ken Allen sank $65,000 into an unsuccessful bid to sit on the School Board.

    This year, with the primary season not even over, four School Board candidates are at or past that level, with two fast approaching the six-figure mark.

    Michelle Popp Shimberg ($97,000), Dipa Shah ($95,000), Melissa Snively ($67,000) and Paula Meckley ($65,000), all first-time candidates for public office, are generating more financial support than these races have seen in at least a decade....

  10. Local schools among 116 that rose two grades or more


    TAMPA — Seeing last year's back-to-school news conference at Graham Elementary School, which was celebrated by superintendent MaryEllen Elia for improving two letter grades, Russell Wallace had an idea.

    He was the new principal at Bailey Elementary, a D school in Dover. Looking ahead optimistically, he had the staff reconfigure the media center to simulate the televised news conference Elia would hold this year....

  11. English teacher proves ESOL training; five more face firing


    TAMPA — The number of Hillsborough County public school teachers up for suspension because of a missing teaching credential is down to five.

    Mitchell Rebenstorf of Wharton High School was put on notice that he had not obtained his endorsement in English for Speakers of Other Languages, a requirement for many teachers with students whose first language was not English.

    His name appeared on a Hillsborough County School Board agenda and in Thursday's Tampa Bay Times....

  12. Lack of training cited as veteran teachers face firing


    TAMPA — William Leonard II was a finalist for Hillsborough County diversity educator of the year in 2013.

    This year he is among six veteran teachers who could lose their jobs because they lack the proper teaching credentials to serve students with limited English skills.

    The six are on a list to be suspended without pay, pending termination. The Hillsborough County School Board will vote on these actions at its next meeting Tuesday....

  13. Teams will target at-risk students in Hillsborough


    Hillsborough County school officials are re-thinking the relationship between counselors and students who are at risk of failing or dropping out.

    Rather than taking a passive approach, the district this year will establish teams of social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors.

    Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is calling these "success programs" that will establish collective ownership of that segment of the student population who sometimes fall through the cracks....

  14. Bus behavior in Hillsborough will be addressed on several fronts


    Student behavior -- and lack of a cohesive way to deal with it -- was one of the biggest problems cited by bus drivers in the public meetings.

    Addressing the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Wednesday, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she is addressing that problem on several fronts.

    She discussed the issue at a principals' meeting this week.

    She's fine-tuning bus driver training, so drivers know the correct way to report student misbehavior on the bus. They'll also get more training in behavior management....

  15. Griffin: More town hall meetings to come


    Expect more town hall meetings on Hillsborough County school district issues, board member April Griffin said Wednesday.

    Addressing the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Griffin, who is seeking re-election to her countyside seat, said, "I'm going to have follow-up meetings on transportation to see how things are going."

    The district is taking multiple steps to correct long-standing problems in that department, including old buses and low morale among the drivers. "I think the plan we have, if we follow it ... there are pieces of it that are very good," Griffin said. "But we have to stay engaged."

    The meetings might cover other topics as well, she said.

    More than 100 school district employees took part in a series of meetings in the spring that were organized by Griffin and other members of the elected board. As those gatherings were taking place, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia commissioned dozens of focus group meetings and later met personally with groups of employees before she developed the district's action plan....

    Employees turned out in April to the Beulah Baptist Church in Tampa to discuss problems with the Hillsborough school district's transportation department