TAMPA — As Hillsborough County School District leaders aim to improve 50 struggling "Achievement" schools, getting enough teachers into some of them continues to be a struggle.
East Tampa's James Elementary and north Tampa's Kimbell Elementary are extreme examples, with a combined 27 vacancies appearing on the district's website last week. Both have F grades from the state, with more than half of their tested students scoring at the lowest level on last year's state English language arts test.
District leaders warned against placing too much stock in the posted vacancy list, which is not always up to date. But they acknowledged that for awhile after the start of the school year, they were offering $2,000 bonuses to highly qualified teachers as an inducement to transfer to those schools with the greatest needs.
The money was meant to help those teachers recover the costs of relocating. And there are a variety of measures under discussion for the coming year that would change how and when they hire new teachers.
"The urgency is definitely there," said Tricia McManus, an assistant superintendent who is in charge of the Achievement project. "The most important thing we can do is to make sure we don't have vacancies."
Achievement, now in its inaugural year, is a successor to the "Priority" and "Elevate" initiatives under superintendent Jeff Eakins that sought to improve seven long-struggling schools, then use the lessons learned to help more schools.
Under Achievement, the district combined its own efforts with turnaround measures that the state orders when a school has too many D or F grades. Doing so expanded the group of schools to 50.
Vacancies were a major concern raised by community leaders who gathered last week for a meeting about the initiative. Members of the group, skeptical as the district moves from one turnaround system to the next, were especially concerned about James Elementary.
Although she could not attend the Wednesday meeting, McManus said later in the week that she has made dozens of trips to James, where five classes are being taught by long-term substitutes, and reassured its new principal, Robin Johnson-Hewitt.
"I know when someone comes in and says they're leaving, it's very painful for principals," McManus said. She advises them to "stay the course, focus on high expectations and stay very positive."
As for the vacancies, McManus said it does not make sense to fill them all at this point in the school year.
In some cases, principals are pleased with the work of the long-term substitutes. Children have grown attached to them. The substitutes are getting assistance from the district's instructional mentors. In other cases, classes were combined and, as with the substitutes, children formed attachments that the principals do not want to disrupt.
"Our bottom line is meeting the needs of the students," McManus said.
At the same time, she described steps the district is considering to avoid a repeat occurrence.
A consultant advised the district to start hiring for the 50 schools earlier in the year than May, when the district currently looks for new teachers. Doing so could go a long way in solving the staffing problem, she said, as schools outside the group of 50 have far less turnover.
The district might hire more teachers than it needs at its lowest-performing schools as a cushion against high teacher turnover. One reason: When a school gets a low grade, the state often asks for the principal to be transferred, which typically prompts more teachers to leave.
Despite the staffing issues, Leadership director Kim Huff and other program officials described positive developments at Wednesday's meeting.
The district has entered into a $135,000 grant-funded contract with the University of Virginia, which has a track record in assisting urban school districts in their turnaround programs. The work touches a variety of components, including screening principals to make sure they are suited for work in an urban setting, with large populations of children who live in poverty.
A separate $4 million grant is helping pay for culturally relevant classroom libraries, behavior specialists and other resources needed at the schools.
Training in cultural sensitivity, now offered to all teachers, is becoming standard for staff in the Achievement group.
"There will be an equity liaison in every school," said Achievement Schools director Jacqueline Haynes. These employees will receive training at the University of South Florida, and stipends for taking on the added responsibility.
Despite these developments, the presentation met with sharp criticism from representatives of the NAACP.
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP's Hillsborough branch, questioned the wisdom of offering bonuses to teachers.
"We're back to bribing them once again?" she asked. "And they end up doing this, and they're doing nothing."
Huff said the bonuses are a short-term measure, necessary because the district got a late start this year in rolling out the Achievement plan. "There's not a magic bullet, or we would have used it already," she said.
Lewis responded, "You said Achievement Schools were the magic bullet. That's what you sold us on."
District leaders also defended themselves against statements by NAACP Vice President Joseph Robinson that institutional racism is a root cause of the schools' problems.
They pointed to changes of recent years, including a new equity policy that "confronts the institutional racism that results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color than for their white peers."
That policy, often cited as the legal basis for Achievement project, directs the district to make equity a priority in employment, community engagement, business practices and teaching methods.
"Institutional racism?" Haynes said. "We couldn't have said that word three years ago."
Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.