A team of Hillsborough County School District specialists is spending the next two weeks at Wharton High School in what officials say is a multi-step effort to get control over behavior and restore confidence at the large suburban high school.
Responding to a large number of campus arrests and fights shown on social media, district leaders met with parents Monday evening in an event that drew hundreds to the school auditorium.
While the Tampa Bay Times was not allowed inside, some parents recorded the meeting and shared those recordings with the newspaper.
Among the high points:
Principal Brad Woods told the parents that “we’ve been working to look at some things through a different lens.” Along with area superintendent Anna Brown and Chief of Schools Harrison Peters, specialists from the district are meeting with students and faculty.
“They will be going to classrooms, observing classroom instruction and student-teacher interactions to ensure optional learning is maximized,” Woods said. “That’s what we all want to see in our classrooms.”
The team also will observe “student movement, safety around the campus. Are there some things that we could do differently? Once they have the time to collect all the data and information, from there we’re going to be developing action steps with trends that arise.
“We’re also trying to set up neighborhood meetings,” he told them. “We’ll be coming out to Live Oak, to Pebble Creek, to Arbor Green.”
Woods and the other administrators did not dispute published reports that there have been 67 arrests at Wharton since the start of the school year.
“It’s not fun to be the school with the largest number of arrests,” Brown said. “We’re trying to take care of that and Mr. Woods has been very good about that.”
Brown took questions that had been submitted in writing and grouped by topic. She talked about what is known as “school culture,” and acknowledged, “it is clear that that is broken in many places. So that is why we’ve come together and we’ve developed this plan where we’re bringing in folks that do not normally work at this school. They are walking the campuses, they are looking at lunch. They are in classrooms.”
Everything from how many students are hanging around in the corridors during class to who is congregating at the Walmart next door is being examined, they said.
Responding to questions about arrests, Brown said that “when a student is arrested, there is a change of placement process. Done. That goes to a hearing. That is not in our hands. I believe this year there have been zero returned to us.”
She then qualified that remark, guessing that one student might have returned.
The change of placement process typically results in a transfer to an alternative school. If a student improves, he or she can return to a conventional school. But “nine times out of 10, it is not their former high school,” Brown told the group. “So I need you to hear that clearly.”
Parents were asked to sign up to assist in a number of tasks.
Woods said he wants the community to get involved in a campus beautification project. He wants to increase mentoring efforts.
And there was a call for help with Wharton’s public relations.
“We have families transitioning to the area,” he said. “We need people to share with them their experiences, and what Wharton has has to offer.”
He asked specifically for volunteers who have experience in marketing and communications.
“There is a tremendous amount of very, very positive things that happen here every day and that isn’t always shared,” he said.
“We have a great set of students. We have great parents that are here and we just need to continue to push ourselves, push our students, push us as a community to become more involved.”
Last year’s teacher climate survey showed Wharton lagged more than 20 points behind the district’s composite score.
The numbers were especially low in the area of managing student conduct: 44 percent, compared with 80 percent districtwide.
Nineteen percent of Wharton teachers agreed that “student at this school follow rules of conduct.” That compares with 67 percent for the district.
Seventeen Wharton students were removed from the school last year through the district’s expulsion and change of placement process. That wasn’t the highest number: Freedom High School, also in New Tampa, moved to expel 23.