TAMPA — Seventeen months after announcing a bold initiative to improve 50 long-struggling schools, the Hillsborough County School District is at a crossroads.
Administrators say the early results of the Achievement Schools project are encouraging, even though school grades and student test scores are not yet where they need to be.
But some members of the School Board, hearing a detailed presentation Tuesday, said they are losing patience. Twelve of the schools saw their state grades drop, and thousands of students continue to struggle with their reading.
"I'm fully invested in this plan for one more year," said board member Steve Cona. If he doesn't see better results, he said, the district should consider other remedies, such as longer school days or year-round instruction. "Everything has to be on the table."
Cona said the district should not be satisfied with schools that have C grades. “C schools, in my opinion, don’t change or rebuild communities,” he said.
Tricia McManus, the assistant superintendent who oversees the Achievement Schools project, acknowledged the mixed record, especially in the area of math and reading proficiency.
“We’re starting to make small, incremental improvements," McManus said. "But we want to do even better.”
Reading is an area that is being explored on multiple fronts, as a quarter of Hillsborough’s students test at the lowest of five levels on the state’s yearly test. A consulting firm is wrapping up the first part of a literacy audit. And McManus’ team has introduced a pilot reading program to nine schools.
The Achievement project, which superintendent Jeff Eakins announced in April 2018, started a year ago.
It suffered in its first year from a shortage of teachers. District leaders responded with a bonus plan, and they describe dramatic results.
They said 322 teachers transferred into Achievement Schools from other district campuses, according to Tuesday’s presentation. Another 351 were hired into the group from outside the district, and vacancy rates are far below last year’s.
McManus and her team, who came equipped with a lengthy report and a pre-produced video, ran through other promising initiatives as well.
Parent liaison workers are being hired at 16 of the schools. Principals and teachers have taken training through the University of Virginia and other organizations that specialize in school turnaround efforts.
Behavior and attendance have improved dramatically at some schools. At Sligh Middle School, which this year has a C grade following a decade of mostly D’s and F’s, 66 percent of the students in 2017-18 were in school at least 90 percent of the year. That number jumped to 80.1 percent for 2018-19, and fewer students are being suspended.
Teachers used to avoid Sligh, but not any more, said Yinka Alege, one of several small group leaders whose Achievement area includes Sligh. “We started this year with zero vacancies,” he said.
The administrators spoke of extensive routines to track every student’s learning data.
Left unsaid was the fact that Eakins will retire in 2020, some time before his contract expires on June 30. With leadership change a certainty, it is impossible to say if the Achievement project will be continued, and some board members pushed back against suggestions that it needs more time.
Board member Cindy Stuart, who worked to get community resources into north Tampa’s Mort Elementary and saw that school drop from a C to a D, said she was discouraged after a recent visit to the school. She described a reduction in aides for students with limited English, who make up a large percentage of Mort’s enrollment. And it happened despite the addition of a food pantry, mental health counseling and other assistance.
“They get everything they need,” Stuart said. “And yet we dropped? When we pull support away from a school, we have to recognize that we did something wrong. I’m concerned that we haven’t figured that out.”
Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger, whose electoral district in central Tampa includes many of the 50 schools, said she has been to planning meetings at the schools. She said she witnessed earnest and high-level planning taking place. Yet, she added, something is wrong.
She compared the situation to a baker whose cake won’t rise, even after he switches out the cake ingredients, oven, and every other variable he can imagine.
“Until we identify the root case, I feel like we’re just kind of spinning our wheels," she said. "I don’t want to keep calling it something new, and trying something new. I think at this point, we really have to identify the root cause.”
The board members were not without suggestions. Stacy Hahn, who came to the board with a background in education, suggested teaming up with other organizations in the county to try and find out how great a factor adult illiteracy is, and then take steps to address that problem.
The board also planned to get a briefing on the two outside entities, known as “external operators,” that the state placed in charge of eight Achievement Schools. But they ran short of time and will reschedule that workshop.