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District touts plan to help poor schools

Hillsborough County educators know success doesn't come easily to students attending schools where nearly everyone is poor.

Children come and go as their families move from apartment to apartment. Teachers and even administrators change with too much frequency as they find the job too stressful.

The challenges are numerous and difficult.

On Tuesday, school district leaders announced plans to help students at these schools fight the odds.

Among the main things the district wants to offer these youngsters is stability.

When their parents move just a few blocks, but into a new attendance zone, the children should be allowed to remain at their school rather than be forced to transfer, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.

If a family moves into a low-income area where the neighborhood school is overcrowded, she said, the children should not further cramp the school.

Rather, they should go to a "partner" school with available seats, with transportation provided, so they will get the attention they deserve.

The goal, Elia said, is to help the at-risk schools and their students before they fall into the ranks of D and F in state grading.

"The schools that have the highest poverty are the schools that we need to make sure have the strategies in place to make sure they're successful," she explained.

Other ideas presented Tuesday include funding additional teacher training, creating schedules that let teachers plan more collaboratively, and teaching principals how to hire more highly qualified staff members.

These and other efforts would go along with other programs already in place, such as paying teachers extra to work at the schools with high concentrations of poverty and reassigning experienced, proven principals to lead them.

"This is a team effort," assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson said. "These students belong to all of us."

The administration plans to start out small, with Shaw Elementary a likely target for many of the reforms when the new academic year begins.

After working out the kinks in the models, the plan is to roll the best ideas out to other schools that fit the description.

Right now, the district has 25 schools with 90 percent or more students on free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

School Board members generally supported the concepts to assist these schools.

Still, they had concerns, ranging from how to keep teachers at schools to how to inform parents about new opportunities.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb, formerly a principal at one of the at-risk schools, had some broad philosophical concerns.

At Robles Elementary, she said, she had about 1,200 children, with 96 percent on free or reduced-price lunches.

Even if the district had kept the school smaller and tamed its mobility rate, she said, things wouldn't have been that different.

"I still would have had 800-900 students, 90 percent poverty and the same struggles, the same challenges, the same everything," Edgecomb said. "Just less."

She suggested the district should look toward strategies that assign students based on economic diversity rather than simply race, she suggested, asking pointedly if the board and administration were having the right discussion.

Elia answered that she was trying to make the best of the district's reality, finding strategies to decrease the barriers these schools and students face daily.

The way the district does business is open for review and change, she said.

"Before you can fix a problem, you really have to control it," Brinson added, asserting that Edgecomb's concerns are the long-term goal after these types of fixes go into place.

Elia said she had not ironed out all the details for how to implement the improvements for these schools, which the district calls Renaissance Schools.

The workshop Tuesday was to alert the School Board and community that change is on the way.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at

(813) 269-5304 or solochek@spttmes.com.

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