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With 39 low-scoring schools, Hillsborough is a target for Florida’s newest choice program

Years of migration away from neighborhood schools has not helped.
An IDEA School of Hope is seen under construction at 11612 N Nebraska Avenue this spring in Tampa.
An IDEA School of Hope is seen under construction at 11612 N Nebraska Avenue this spring in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 5

For more than 60 years, Robles Elementary School has served a modest north Tampa community — but not the whole community.

Fewer than half the children who could go to Robles get their education there, according to a Hillsborough County School District report. Close to 100 students opted in the last school year for Woodmont, a charter school in nearby Temple Terrace managed by a for-profit company in Fort Lauderdale. Hundreds more went to district-run magnets, or neighborhood schools with seats to spare.

Multiply Robles by 39 campuses in similar straits, and you have a county that is ground zero for the state’s Schools of Hope program, the latest challenge to traditional public education in Florida.

The cluster of red dots showing "persistently low performing" schools in Hillsborough County shows how the district may be impacted by Florida's "Schools of Hope" initiative. The program allows "hope operators" to open charter schools within five miles of any of these schools, with virtually no oversight by the School Board. Six schools are not shown.
The cluster of red dots showing "persistently low performing" schools in Hillsborough County shows how the district may be impacted by Florida's "Schools of Hope" initiative. The program allows "hope operators" to open charter schools within five miles of any of these schools, with virtually no oversight by the School Board. Six schools are not shown.

The brainchild of education commissioner Richard Corcoran when he was Speaker of the House from 2016 to 2018, the program allows nonprofit “hope operators” to open charter schools near any public school that the state deems “persistently low performing.” And they can do it with virtually no intervention from local school boards, which usually get to weigh in when a charter school wants to open.

The state has approved five hope operators, including IDEA Public Schools, a Texas-based organization that will launch two K-12 schools in Hillsborough this August.

Offered as alternatives to Robles and Oak Park Elementary, the two schools will serve as many as 1,400 students when fully up and running. A third campus is planned the following year in the Mango suburb. Unlike typical charter schools, they will provide transportation.

Schools of Hope is yet another way Florida lawmakers have devised to let private organizations step in where students, in the state’s estimation, are ill-served by the public system.

That thinking was on display at a Hillsborough School Board workshop in April when Dakeyan Graham, a state education official, pointed out some of the district’s dismal statistics. At nine failing schools, he noted, fewer than 30 percent of students could pass the state’s competency exams.

“Unacceptable,” Graham said.

“That means three out of every ten students you walk in the halls to meet are proficient in reading and math. That’s an F on any grade scale.”

Some schools have had D and F grades for five straight years, said Graham, a former music teacher at Tampa’s King High who was state teacher of the year in 2020 and soon rose to be executive director of the Florida’s office of independent education and parental choice. “That’s an entire generation of students.”

But Graham did not explore how Hillsborough came to have 39 low-performing schools, far more than Miami-Dade, Broward and the state’s other large districts.

Dakeyan "Dre" Graham, left, is executive director of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education. He is pictured here accepting the award for Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year in 2019. He later was named the state's Teacher of the Year. [Times (2019)]
Dakeyan "Dre" Graham, left, is executive director of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education. He is pictured here accepting the award for Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year in 2019. He later was named the state's Teacher of the Year. [Times (2019)]

Critics of traditional public education might blame the teachers and administrators. But enrollment numbers suggest another factor that makes Hillsborough uniquely vulnerable to an incursion of hope operators: Too much choice.

Beginning in the 1990s, Hillsborough opened dozens of magnet schools, which were seen as instruments to achieve racial diversity after busing was abandoned. Charter schools came along a few years later.

Students enjoy lunch at a school run by Kid's Community College, a charter operation that has steadily added schools in the Riverview area since it arrived on the scene in 2005. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times (2016)]
Students enjoy lunch at a school run by Kid's Community College, a charter operation that has steadily added schools in the Riverview area since it arrived on the scene in 2005. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2016)]

Those two forces resulted in large numbers of students leaving their neighborhood schools, a burden that fell unequally across the district.

In Hillsborough’s more affluent communities, where schools are perceived to be strong, as many as 90 percent of students remain in their neighborhood schools. Those percentages can fall to the 50s and 40s in the urban core, where schools often have grades of C, D and F from the state.

Among the many examples: Potter Elementary in East Tampa, which logged five F grades between 2013 and 2017 and struggled with teacher turnover in those years. According to the district report, Potter lost 78 children last year to choice, the term used for selecting a vacant spot at a different neighborhood school. Another 258 students chose magnet schools and 98 went to charter schools.

Teacher Adrienne Brown watches as third-grader Keondre Barton, left, and fourth-grader Afton Kurek use a flight simulator during a Gifted Technology Goals class at Lockhart Elementary Magnet School in East Tampa. [Times (2017)]
Teacher Adrienne Brown watches as third-grader Keondre Barton, left, and fourth-grader Afton Kurek use a flight simulator during a Gifted Technology Goals class at Lockhart Elementary Magnet School in East Tampa. [Times (2017)]

The exodus left Potter with only 41 percent of its neighborhood children.

The district and community have invested heavily in Potter in recent years, with social services to provide more support to children and their families. The latest state reading test results are mixed: Twenty-two percent of Potter’s third-graders received passing scores, a 6-point improvement from 2019. But the percent scoring in the lowest of five levels remained unchanged at 61 percent.

Another example is F-rated Kimbell Elementary, which keeps 48 percent of its neighborhood children, according to the report. Two charter schools, Village of Excellence and Woodmont, signed up 73 of Kimbell’s children. The Riverhills magnet school took 38. Another 60 left through choice, to elementary schools including Lewis and Temple Terrace.

As with Potter, more than half Kimbell’s third-graders — 55 percent — scored this year at the lowest of five reading levels.

Woodmont Charter School in Temple Terrace. [Times (2017)]
Woodmont Charter School in Temple Terrace. [Times (2017)]

The Tampa Bay Times calculated that among the 39 struggling schools, more than 10,000 neighborhood children left for magnet, choice or charter options. Among the choice group, some moved from one of the 39 schools to another, taking advantage of a state law that allows for transfers out of schools with poor records.

Are the 39 schools destined to show poor results because so many of their stronger students leave?

That question is difficult to answer.

In the decades since charter schools became a national trend, researchers have tried to measure their impact on neighboring schools. Some studies suggest a “cream-skimming” effect, with schools placed at a growing disadvantage when they lose talented students and committed parents. Others tout charter schools’ superior test results and percentages of students continuing on to college, even when they recruit students from disadvantaged communities.

Meaningful analysis is difficult, researchers say, because of the many variables that affect a student’s chances at success.

“We don’t have good data because we lump low-income students together when really there are meaningful differences among families,” said Jeremy Singer, a Wayne State University doctoral candidate who studies public school attendance patterns in Detroit.

Those differences go beyond academic ability and family income and into areas like employment stability, parental education and the composition of households, Singer said. Yet “we ask, does the kid get free lunch or not, and that’s all we ask.’'

Charisse Gulosino, an education professor at the University of Memphis who also studies the effects of choice, said cream-skimming “sets off a downward spiral of problems for neighborhood schools – such as high teacher turnover and attrition, staffing issues, low teacher morale, poor culture, among others. These problems will have a negative impact on teaching and learning, contributing to poor academic performance on state tests.”

Research specific to charter schools is not all consistent, she said. But studies clearly show that students from low-income families are more successful if they attend schools with higher performing peers. And, she wrote, “the academic achievement of students in neighborhood schools with high concentrations of low-performing peers are reduced due to negative peer effects.”

Some Hillsborough educators are more candid than others about the effects of choice on the 39 schools. They note that magnet schools have been game changers for generations of students who found programs and classes that sparked their interest. And they tout progress in high-poverty schools under superintendent Addison Davis’s Transformation Network initiative.

“The challenge is greater,” said Shaylia McRae, who heads up the Transformation group. “We do have kids who may come in not as prepared, who may be hungry, or from broken homes, or living in a homeless situation.”

But she noted improvement in her schools, including Potter, on the state reading test scores that were released this month. Stronger partnerships with community and business groups have brought greater stability to the schools, she said, and she looks forward to seeing the rest of this year’s results.

Robert Cox, supervisor of magnet programs, said the district looks for ways to offset the tendency of magnet schools to attract children of privilege.

“We make a concerted effort to go into neighborhoods where families may not have English as their primary language,” he said. “We go into neighborhoods where families may live beneath a certain socio-economic line. Our outreach is strategic and it’s widespread.”

And there is virtually no turning back, even if districts wanted to, said Mathew Romano, director of the choice program office. “That’s not the direction the state’s going with school choice,” he said. “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

In Hillsborough’s current climate, much is now uncertain.

The School Board on June 15 moved to close four charter schools, including Woodmont, and turned down proposals for two new schools. State education commissioner Richard Corcoran reacted harshly to this new defiance, and the stage is set for multiple legal battles with the state.

The district is also awaiting the rest of this year’s Florida Standards Assessment results. School grades are voluntary this year, meaning that if some of the schools show significant improvement, the list of 39 could be reduced.

In Tallahassee and in Hillsborough, officials agreed that it is incumbent on the district to do all it can to improve outcomes at the low-performing schools.

“That’s why it’s so important to close the gap,” McRae said. “So people know they have a viable option right in their backyard. So our neighborhood parents feel like, I can send my kids to the neighborhood school.”