A student working on a computer at James Elementary, the only remaining F school in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough’s struggling schools attempt a ‘transformation.’ Can it work?

With 35 “persistently low-performing” schools — more than any other Florida county — the road ahead is uncertain.
A student working on a computer at James Elementary, the only remaining F school in Hillsborough County. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]
With 35 “persistently low-performing” schools — more than any other Florida county — the road ahead is uncertain.
Published Feb. 17|Updated Feb. 17

In the videos, children crawl on the floor and talk excitedly with their table mates. They stand in front of Alexandra Maley’s third-grade classroom at Kenly Elementary in Tampa, explaining how they solved a word problem.

A group of Hillsborough County school leaders watches the clips with rapt attention, because everyone wants to discern the magic. Kenly’s state grade shot from a D to a B last year, largely on the strength of students’ math scores.

How does that happen?

Is it the way a team of teachers analyzes wrong answers to pinpoint which concepts need a quick review? Is it the calming voice of teacher Tiffany Brown as she tells her class: “Read the problem. Read it once, read it twice, but read it until you are able to comprehend.”

The answers don’t come easily. The magic is elusive.

The ‘Transformation Network’ is born

Despite numerous initiatives and tens of millions of dollars spent, Hillsborough County continues to have far more schools than any other Florida district deemed “persistently low-performing” by the state.

And no one, it seems, can say why.

Hillsborough has 35 schools on the list. No other district has more than 18, including the two that are bigger. Pinellas County has six. Pasco County two.

The reasons for the disparity might include poverty and language barriers, discipline problems and punitive state tests, according to principals, teachers and administrators interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.

But these same challenges exist everywhere in Florida, as does the latest culprit affecting student performance: COVID-19.

Related: A closer look at the 14 lowest-performing schools in Hillsborough County

Hillsborough’s dismal statistics persist despite a succession of ambitious initiatives, all intended to create a quality education for students, regardless of income or zip code.

The latest effort — the “Transformation Network” — is the brainchild of superintendent Addison Davis, now completing his second year on the job.

The initiative is headed by fourth-generation educator Shaylia McRae. Her team is trying everything from organized community outreach to fast-food coupons to reward better student attendance.

They’ve reached out to church leaders, who said in the past they wanted to help but were sometimes turned away. Using corporate donations, McRae’s team is setting up gaming rooms on campuses. Local colleges and universities are sending students known as “Transformation Fellows” to help as tutors.

And in a school system already focused on data, the team has taken number-crunching to a new level, working to maximize every teaching moment for every student.

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Shaylia McRae, chief of the Transformation Network for Hillsborough County Public Schools, during a visit to James Elementary School in November, 2021.
Shaylia McRae, chief of the Transformation Network for Hillsborough County Public Schools, during a visit to James Elementary School in November, 2021. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

“We identify what are the standards that students are doing well,” McRae said. “And we create action plans to help to guide what we should be teaching in daily instruction. We try to ensure that students are getting what they need in order to be successful and proficient.”

For the kids, their families and the Tampa Bay community, the price of continued failure is high.

In the worst of Hillsborough’s “Transformation” schools, 60 to 85 percent of students fall below the state’s most basic standards in reading, year after year. Later in life, many will struggle to read a job application, a training manual, an election ballot, a doctor’s written instructions after surgery.

Yet every year, the school district will send them on by the hundreds to more challenging settings in middle and high school.

‘They want to learn’

District leaders are aware that the work must go beyond school walls. “If we believe that we can transform and break the cycle of underperforming schools by only focusing on our students while they are only in our schools, we are sadly mistaken,” said Davis, the superintendent.

McRae is training one employee at each school to be a family and community ambassador. At James Elementary in Tampa, the one remaining F school, principal Nicole Bennett is not shy about asking teachers to make home visits. “We have to go to them if they don’t come to us,” she said.

She addressed the stigma of the F this way: “I think it’s hard to be identified by a letter grade ... because unless you’re here every day in these trenches, you don’t know what we’re doing or what’s going on or how much growth we’re even making from the year before and the year before that.”

Now in her second year at James, Bennett has moved from establishing better behavior routines to differentiating the lessons based on individual student needs.

“Our kids want it,” she said. “They’re not just sitting there saying, wamp wamp. They want to learn. They want high structure, and they want to feel like this is a school community.”

Art teacher Christine Samad teaches children at James Elementary School how to use a horizon to illustrate a landscape.
Art teacher Christine Samad teaches children at James Elementary School how to use a horizon to illustrate a landscape. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

Davis is celebrating the team’s early success, at least on paper: The district in 2021 had 14 D and F schools, while two years ago it had 28.

But a C doesn’t mean a school is out of trouble.

Schools often swing from the C grades that they work so hard to obtain back to a D or F — which lands them back in the state warning zone. That’s partly because the points to earn that C come largely from two categories: Gains overall, and gains made by the lowest-scoring 25 percent of students. There are only so many gains to be had, even in the highest-performing schools, so it’s hard to keep getting those points.

If not for lenient state requirements during the pandemic, more Hillsborough schools could have dropped to a D or F last year. More than half of the Transformation schools that had a C or better saw pass rates drop for English/language arts, math, or both. Nearly 5,000 students in that group tested in Level 1 for reading, the lowest of the state’s five levels.

Davis, McRae and chief academic officer Terry Connor agreed that timetables imposed by the state can stand in the way of true progress. Bringing a student, or a group of students, to the levels they should be can take years.

Yet after a school gets a D or an F grade, the state expects rapid change.

New names, same problem

Jeff Eakins, the superintendent who preceded Davis, tried in 2015 to make Hillsborough an example for all large districts by using seven schools as a learning laboratory, then expanding the successful methods to the rest.

The seven were known as “Priority” schools. To avoid confusion with the state’s designation of priority schools, he later changed the name to “Elevate.” One of the seven schools, Miles Elementary, improved enough to leave the group after the first year, but later regressed to its current D grade. Another, Sulphur Springs K-8, never moved beyond a D.

Related: How one Hillsborough principal tried to fix a D school, and hit a wall

Assistant superintendent Tricia McManus — now a superintendent in North Carolina — was charged in 2018 with rolling together all of the district and state school improvement work under the “Achievement Schools” project. Fifty schools were in that group. District leaders say McManus made progress through better recruitment and preparation of principals.

Other strategies included paying $45 million in teacher bonuses. More money came from government grants, including the federal Title I program that in a typical year delivers roughly $60 million for high-poverty schools. The district hired consultants under orders from the state. To date, those payments have exceeded $8 million.

Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis speaks with district counsel Jeff Gibson during a School Board meeting in December. Davis launched the Transformation Network in another bid to improve the district's lowest-performing schools.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis speaks with district counsel Jeff Gibson during a School Board meeting in December. Davis launched the Transformation Network in another bid to improve the district's lowest-performing schools. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When Davis took over, he put McRae in charge, renamed the group the Transformation Network and cut it to include only the 28 D and F schools. Then he expanded the group again to include what are known as “fragile C” schools. The number is back up to 45.

To get a snapshot of the problem, the Times looked back at five years of data in the 14 Transformation schools that still have D grades, or in the case of James Elementary, an F.

Patterns emerged.

Some schools have had one or two principals since 2016. Others had three or four. One has had five.

A number of teachers lacked the training or skill to help children meet state standards, according to state-required improvement plans submitted by school administrators.

Some schools were so small that their numbers work against them when it comes to state grades. They had too few students to benefit from those extra points the state awards when the lowest-scoring kids make gains.

Other schools strained to serve their students because of their larger populations. At Miles Elementary, which is filled near capacity, there were not enough English language support services to meet the needs of a large population of new immigrants.

Tampa Heights Elementary is a special case. Before a fire gutted the building in 2017, the school was a well-respected magnet with a solid C, and in some years a B.

While the district rebuilt the school, students were housed at nearby Lockhart Elementary, a D school that is also on the state list. Tampa Heights earned two D’s during the transition. And last year, though back at its original location, 61 percent of its students fell below Florida standards on the state reading test.

Despite the many variables, data and interviews point to several factors, outlined below, that may be impacting Hillsborough more than other districts.

Not ready for kindergarten

More than 16,000 students enter kindergarten every year in Hillsborough County. About 4,000 go to district preschool, including the federally funded Head Start program.

What about the other 75 percent? They might be in a commercial preschool, a family day care home, or spending the day with a parent or grandparent. And the knowledge the state demands of a child in kindergarten is growing all the time.

McRae and her team addressed the preschool issue early in what she calls “a slow, systemic approach to really getting to the root causes of failure.”

In Hillsborough, 48 percent of children entering kindergarten are far enough along in their letter sounds, number recognition and other basic skills to expect success. That’s two points below the statewide average of 50 percent. But at the 14 D and F schools, those numbers drop as low as 16.5 percent at Miles Elementary and 16.9 percent at James Elementary.

“When you look community-wise in our inner city core, you don’t see commercialized day care centers,” McRae said. One solution would be to get more preschool seats in the district schools, especially those that have extra room because so many families have left to enroll in choice programs.

Eakins, the former superintendent, had hoped to oversee a major preschool expansion, ideally in the same schools where the children would continue on to kindergarten. He made progress, with enrollment climbing as high as 4,600 children.

But the number plummeted during the pandemic, and now it is back to around 4,000.

Poverty and school boundaries

A 2015 Harvard University study ranked the nation’s 100 largest counties on the basis of a child’s ability to transcend poverty. Hillsborough came in 98th.

Some educators have wondered if the problem in the schools stemmed from the unusual nature of poverty in Hillsborough, that it was more concentrated and more deeply entrenched.

But the study did not say that poverty causes schools to struggle. In fact, in one passage, it suggested inferior schools are one reason why people are poor.

Nevertheless, the 14 D and F schools have a preponderance of students described as low-income.

In drawing boundaries, school leaders seek to keep communities together. And sometimes that intention adds to economic segregation.

One example is Oak Park Elementary, which is being celebrated this year because it rose from an F to a C. It serves an East Tampa neighborhood that includes a domestic violence shelter, a drug rehabilitation center and low-rent motels. In an average Hillsborough school, 3 of every 100 students enrolled in October will be gone in February. At Oak Park, 10 will be gone.

Sulphur Springs, a community north of Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood, has a poverty rate that has been measured at three times the national average, affecting 42 percent of the population and 58 percent of its children.

The community has its own school, which the district expanded from K-5 to K-8 in 2015. The plan was to work with a consortium of charities to revitalize the neighborhood.

Three principals later, Sulphur Springs is looking back at a string of D and F grades. And 58 percent of the students are Level 1 readers.

While Davis was not superintendent at the time, he says that expansion was a mistake. “In that model, you have to get pre-K through 5th grade right before you decide to expand it to a new configuration,” he said.

He also stood by a statement he made in early 2021 about the need for new school boundaries and, if necessary, closing or consolidating schools that are under-enrolled, chronically under-performing, or both.

“If we keep doing the same cut-and-paste application, or system, or body of work, and it’s not moving the needle, you’ve got to think differently,” Davis said. “We’ve got to figure out strategies to be able to put children in situations to be successful.”

Staff turnover

Adams Middle School started the school year with 13 employees who were new to the district.

One, Gary Pate, left after seven weeks teaching special education. It wasn’t for him, despite a long career teaching students with special needs. He appreciated the principal and assistant principals, he said. But he could not tolerate the disrespect shown by a disruptive group of students. In his opinion, the district did not provide enough support.

“It’s a jail, that place,” Pate said. “There’s fights every day.”

Eleven teachers who started at Giunta Middle School this school year later left the district.

High-poverty schools lose talent in spite of the bonus pay, and there is turnover in the principal ranks too. The 14 D and F schools have had 39 principals since 2016. Those on the job now have been there an average of two years.

In education circles, it is commonly understood that a principal needs between three and five years to become established.

McRae said she believes the district has a deep bench of principals, thanks to the work McManus did seven years ago in establishing a “principal pipeline” training program.

One obstacle to continuity: When a school gets a low grade, state regulators often insist that it get a new principal.

Reading: a weak spot

There is a direct connection between Hillsborough’s English/language arts test scores, which are consistently below the state average, and its disproportionately high number of low-performing schools.

For one thing, the test scores are the building blocks for the yearly grades. And reading in particular is the foundation of nearly all other learning.

In 2019, the district commissioned a literacy audit by an educational consulting firm. The report showed numerous flaws in the system.

Teaching the way the district wanted was optional rather than required. Practices differed from one classroom to the next. Digital tools were sometimes used incorrectly and excessively. Top teachers were assigned to grades three to five, while kindergarten through second grade — the most important years for foundational skills — got the less-skilled teachers.

District leaders set out to tighten teaching practices. They were relieved when, after the first pandemic year, Hillsborough’s passing rate in English/language arts dropped by only 4 percentage points. The drop was one point more than the state’s. But Hillsborough officials noted that the learning losses were far worse in other large districts.

Students at James Elementary School in Tampa work on reading words with second-grade teacher Diana Patrissi. The school uses test data to isolate skills that students must master to keep up with state standards.
Students at James Elementary School in Tampa work on reading words with second-grade teacher Diana Patrissi. The school uses test data to isolate skills that students must master to keep up with state standards. [ AYA DIAB | Times ]

The lack of consistency across the district can be especially significant for families who move around and transfer their children midyear.

Despite Davis’ efforts to become more consistent in reading instruction, 27 percent of Hillsborough’s student test-takers scored last year in the lowest range, Level 1. That was 2 points worse than the state average.

Davis and his chief academic officer, Connor, said they are moving as quickly as they can to bring consistency into the system, along with new products and teaching methods that put a greater emphasis on phonics in the early years.

The process becomes difficult, they said, because in addition to the disruption of COVID-19, the state is adopting new academic targets to replace the Florida Standards, which was a variation of Common Core.

“So now we have new standards, new curriculum and a pandemic, all at once,” Connor said.

Too many choices

The Times calculated the 14 schools’ “stay rates,” a term referring to the percentage of children who lived in a school’s attendance area and remained instead of opting for a magnet school, charter school or another traditional district school.

Strong schools tend to have high stay rates because their communities have confidence in them. Westchase Elementary School, for example, keeps 89 percent of its neighborhood students. Gorrie Elementary in South Tampa keeps 92 percent.

The 14 D and F schools had rates as low as 39 percent at Giunta Middle and 45 percent at Adams Middle.

In sheer numbers, 1,248 students left Giunta for these other options. There were 316 who left James, and 584 who left Robles.

When a large percentage of families go elsewhere, a school can lose parents who are likely to be involved as volunteers and children who may have the most advantages outside of school.

David Colon, a social studies teacher, worked at Adams Middle nearly a decade ago and then returned this past year.

In that time, Adams’ enrollment dropped by nearly half. But the smaller numbers did not help the school, Colon said.

He had high praise for the administrators and students. But he found the atmosphere at Adams depressing, with classrooms going unused and not enough adults in the hallways between classes.

“Children know when they’re being shortchanged,” Colon said. “I’d hear them say, ‘My friend is going to a charter school’ or ‘My friend is going to choice school.’ They’ll brag about their schools. I’ve heard the kids say, ‘My friends go to an A school and this is a D and an F school.’”

The district leaders did not deny that the options for families can sap a school of resources, including involved parents.

But, they said, they have to accept this kind of marketplace of school choices. For one thing, state leaders are encouraging the proliferation of independent charter schools, and scholarships for private schools.

“If we don’t create choice, then we won’t compete,” Davis said. That’s why he is determined to use whatever funds are available to make the Transformation Network schools competitive.

No silver bullet

It’s impossible to tell, from the data available, if teacher qualification is part of the problem.

State evaluation reports show 99 percent and sometimes 100 percent of the teachers in the lowest-graded schools are deemed “highly effective” or “effective.”

But in another set of documents, called School Improvement Reports, principals have noted teacher shortcomings: A writing teacher who cannot grade essays, a science teacher who does not know fifth-grade math, and numerous cases where teachers knew the material, but did not design effective classroom lessons.

Teachers, in the interviews, typically said classes were too big, especially in schools where children are a year or more behind in their skills; or when behavior is disruptive.

Some did not like to have coaches and specialists second-guessing them instead of rolling up their sleeves and teaching. Many agreed with union president Rob Kriete, who suggested the district turn coaching positions into teaching positions.

Chief academic officer Terry Connor.
Chief academic officer Terry Connor. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]

Davis and Connor, however, said the research does not support the idea that better results come from smaller classes.

They said they have moved away from a past system of mentors and evaluators, who were sometimes seen as judgmental, and into one that employs “content specialists” who can help teachers achieve better results. What’s more, they said, the teaching coaches work with small groups of children during the second half of the school year, when state testing kicks in.

Davis said he believes the district has made advancements in a number of key areas: recruiting good teachers and principals; helping teachers master content and align it with the state standards; improving relationships with parents and communities; and using test data to give students the instruction they need, in real time.

But as much as he wanted to congratulate his team, he said, “the silver bullet doesn’t exist.”

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