Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Gradebook

Community schools, STEM, and other signs of competition in Hillsborough County

The large district is looking for ways to motivate families to stay in the public schools.

The Hillsborough County School District is preparing to unveil a new generation of specialty programs aimed at enabling district schools to compete in an era of ever more competition from charter schools and vouchers.

Some of the new ventures are still being developed. But early plans call for International Baccalaureate studies at Alonso High School; STEM classes at Twin Lakes, Egypt Lake and Just elementary schools; a dual-enrollment relationship with Hillsborough Community College at Spoto High School; and more children learning in both English and Spanish.

“We’ve got to make sure that our product that we’re offering our families is first class,” Superintendent Jeff Eakins told the Tampa Bay Times. “And we also have to start with the end in mind. Parents want to know that their children are going to have top quality jobs.”

The changes are happening as charter schools - which take tax dollars but are managed by entities outside public school districts - continue their growth in Hillsborough. At last count, the district’s 50 charter schools educated more than 10 percent percent of Hillsborough’s 220,000 students.

Those numbers are expected to grow, with encouragement from the Legislature.

Hillsborough’s first four “schools of hope,” an idea launched by state Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran to offer alternatives to low-performing schools, are planned in the central Tampa neighborhoods served by Robles and Oak Park Elementary, Sligh and Greco Middle. IDEA, a nonprofit charter operator based in Texas, is behind that venture, which will grow over time to serve 3,000 students.

The district is also anticipating four other charter schools to open this August and another four in 2020, ultimately to serve more than 8,000 students. Two large Miami businesses, Academica and Charter School Associates, are on board to manage half of the new schools.

As middle school is the time when many families turn to charters, the district is rolling out a concept it calls “Scholar Prep” for all its middle and K-8 schools. Scholar Prep is largely a marketing initiative, designed to make sure parents know about the career exploration opportunities and high school level courses that are already available at all of its middle schools.

“We have kids who are coming out of middle school, practically juniors in high school,” said communications and media officer Grayson Kamm. “You want your student to get access to some high achieving work? We have it. And we’re giving everybody a consistent way to talk about it.” At the same time, Eakins said, district leaders will continue to look for ways to ease children’s transition from fifth to sixth grade.

Other developments:

  • Plans are under way to offer more family assistance at schools in Hillsborough’s lowest-income neighborhoods, on a slightly smaller scale than the community school model at Mort Elementary. Potter, Gibsonton and Foster Elementary are all being eyed for community school projects, as is Greco. These plans will take shape as Greco pursues a separate plan to become an International Baccalaureate school.
  • Schools are focusing on career education, including some hands-on work experience. Both Chamberlain and Hillsborough High School are entering the planning phase for 3DE, a Junior Achievement initiative. In 3DE, corporations bring projects and case studies to the high schools so students, over several years’ time, can work on solutions in a way that also satisfies state educational standards.
  • The district is expanding its use of AVID, a study skills and college preparation program now offered at all middle and high schools, to a larger number of elementary schools.
  • And there will be more grades added to the existing dual-language programs, where students learn simultaneously in English and Spanish. The total number of children learning in both languages is expected to grow from 102 two years ago to 522, including bilingual social studies classes at Town 'N Country’s Pierce Middle School.