TAMPA — Most of the children he will teach are poor enough for free school lunch. Some will come from unstable families.
And that’s all right, because so did Ariel Bell.
“I went to so many elementary schools that I can’t even name them all,” said Bell, 26, who grew up in foster care and was hired recently as a music teacher at Woodson K-8 School.
“I knew how to rely on myself. But I know that doesn’t come with everybody.”
Bell is part of a generation of new recruits and transfers who are setting out to make school meaningful for children in Hillsborough’s poorest neighborhoods and lowest-performing schools.
A number of initiatives aimed at equity were launched in recent years under superintendent Jeff Eakins’ leadership. Eakins expanded the Priority and Elevate school improvement systems, which covered seven schools, to the Achievement Schools program, which has 50. He commissioned an audit of reading instruction after test scores showed one in four students were poor readers. And he has worked to get more kids into preschool so they can be ready for kindergarten.
But, with Eakins preparing to retire, will some of this momentum be lost?
Those at the top insist it will not.
“I will tell you, we are 100 percent committed,” said assistant superintendent Tricia McManus. “Not only our Achievement School leadership team, but my colleagues in cabinet and our principals. We are very, very committed to seeing this work through. There will be no distractions this year. We are on a mission.”
GRADEBOOK PODCAST: Hear the Times’ full interview with Tricia McManus and teacher April Cobb.
Addressing both the School Board and the state Board of Education last week, Eakins made a case that the district is far better able to educate students of poverty than it was four years ago, when he began.
A partnership with the University of South Florida yielded an educational leadership degree program for “turnaround” schools. Another partnership with the University of Virginia teaches best practices in leading schools that need improvement.
A bonus plan is helping fill teaching jobs in schools that, a year ago, had a dozen or more vacancies. “In 2015, we were not a school district built for massive turnaround,” Eakins told the Hillsborough board on Tuesday, and he made a similar statement at the state meeting on Wednesday.
But the district has yet to see dramatic results where the state likes to see them — grades and test scores. Hillsborough has eight F schools, more than half of the state’s 15. Four are charter, alternative or special education schools. But even the other four — James, Kimbell, Oak Park and Foster elementary schools — represent a disproportionate share among the state’s 67 districts.
The number of schools supervised by outside organizations, one of several options dictated by the state after too many low grades, grew this year from three to eight.
And district leaders continue to wrestle with the complex issue of student discipline. A School Board workshop on June 25 yielded so few answers that members agreed they will need another session.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” said Jennings Middle School math teacher April Cobb, who hosts Facebook teacher chats about problems in urban schools. “I just don’t know that what we are currently doing is not enough as it relates to the kids on the bottom.”
One new remedy, suggested by the NAACP, is to add 16 full-time parent liaison employees for Achievement Schools with the biggest challenges. Recruiting for those jobs began earlier this month.
And training days last week at Chamberlain High School covered a variety of topics to get teachers acquainted with common challenges that come with poverty. They learned about brain science, to understand anger in children whose lives are stressful. And they covered practical classroom matters — for example, the reality that not all children can get a parent to sign their daily planners.
Bell, the Woodson music teacher, appreciated the Chamberlain sessions and speakers. “They’re talking about everything,” he said during lunch on Thursday. “They’re not afraid of anything.”
He also appreciated that his principal, Ovett Wilson, spent much of their interview discussing the need to interact positively with the students, more than the lessons he will teach.
For Bell, the job is a homecoming of sorts. He attended Van Buren Middle School before it merged with Cahoon Elementary to become Woodson. Sixth-grade music class was the experience that gave him purpose and confidence, he said. The teacher called on him to sing a solo as Santa Claus in the holiday show. “That experience alone showed me that I can do anything.”
Years later, when he bounced from foster care to his mother’s home to nights sleeping at a laundromat or a friend’s house, he found a sense of family in the Hillsborough High School band. After going to Miles College in Alabama on a music scholarship, he worked as a long-term substitute and now looks forward to his first official teaching position.
He plans to be upfront with his students about his past, so they will know they can seek him out if they need help. His philosophy going in: “I really believe that this is a world where good energy is reciprocated.”
Those on the School Board who are watching the Achievement initiative, meanwhile, are looking for results.
Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger, whose district includes many of the lower-performing schools, has tallied the D’s and F’s on Facebook. At Tuesday’s board meeting, she called for a workshop on the Achievement Schools and extensive reports on Phalen Leadership Academies, the outside organization working with four of the eight schools.
Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times after the reading scores were released, Shamburger said, “We can’t continue to see the same results year after year. Something radical has to be done.”
But she said she does not believe Eakins will lose interest in these issues. “I, by no means, think that he will coast into retirement,” she said. “I think he will work even harder to make sure these kids get what they need. I think everybody’s all in.”