Hillsborough ponders another K-8 school, but questions loom over the impact

The move, similar to others in recent years, is proposed by Carrollwood Elementary parents seeking other options for middle school.
Children and staff gather at Carrollwood Elementary School during dismissal on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Tampa. Parents at the school are proposing that it be expanded to include grades 6-8.
Children and staff gather at Carrollwood Elementary School during dismissal on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Tampa. Parents at the school are proposing that it be expanded to include grades 6-8. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sept. 3, 2022

Parents at Carrollwood Elementary School want to keep their children there a few years longer — all the way through eighth grade.

It isn’t just because they like the A-rated school in picturesque Original Carrollwood.

Their issue is more about the school the kids are assigned to attend afterwards: Adams Middle, with a D grade since 2019.

“Our families do not feel comfortable sending their children there currently,” said Alexis Fruge, president of the Carrollwood PTA. So, many send their children to independent charter schools. And as charters often have long waiting lists, Carrollwood parents are starting the migration long before middle school begins.

“We are seeing families leave our wonderful school early in the primary grades,” Fruge said. “We are devastated to lose families so early.”

The trend has inspired a parent-led proposal to turn Carrollwood Elementary into K-8 school, an idea that raises broader issues as school choice takes growing numbers of children out of their neighborhood schools. At what point does choice prevent districts from keeping their schools healthy and safe, diverse and effective? And when a school such as Adams is struggling, is it wise to compromise it even more by removing more children?

“In a perfect world, everyone needs to send their kids there,” Fruge said, referring to Adams. “But it’s not that easy.”

District statistics from 2021-22 show that of 1,363 public school students assigned to Adams based on their addresses, more than half opted for charter schools, magnet schools or other district schools that had room under Hillsborough’s choice system. One was Fruge’s older child, who attends Ben Hill Middle in Carrollwood Village.

At Carrollwood Elementary last year, one third of the students opted out, most often attending charter schools. The data does not include private school enrollment.

All of this movement left Adams with an 82% poverty rate, reflecting attendance boundaries that include lower-income neighborhoods near Sulphur Springs and the University of South Tampa. That poverty rate compares to 46% at Carrollwood. There is also a contrast in racial balance: Adams is 10% white, Carrollwood is 42% white.

Often parents ask for changes in school assignments because they are concerned about the impact a school grade will have on their property values. Fruge acknowledged there is an element of that issue in the Carrollwood movement too.

At Tuesday’s School Board meeting, parents outlined their plan and urged a quick decision.

They said that by gradually reducing the number of choice seats in Carrollwood’s K-5 grades, they can add one middle school grade every year without the need for new construction or a larger teaching staff.

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The group included Brittany Cooper, a former Carrollwood Elementary student who returned to the neighborhood to raise her children, and Anna Brown, a onetime area superintendent for Hillsborough schools who works for the Pinellas district and has a son in fifth grade at Carrollwood.

Like the others, Brown said she is anxious for a decision so her family can plan for the coming year. “Let’s not let this opportunity pass simply with polite promises to review and consider,” she said. “Action is needed now.”

A K-8 conversion at Carrollwood would follow a half-dozen others that Hillsborough has undertaken in recent years. Maniscalco K-8, Pizzo K-8 and Lutz K-8, all in the northern county, were elementary schools until the district expanded them in 2018, largely in response to competition from charters.

Elsewhere, the district merged elementary and middle schools to form K-8 schools, including Turner-Bartels in New Tampa and Woodson K-8 in north Tampa.

Jessica Vaughn
Jessica Vaughn [ Times (2020) ]

School Board member Jessica Vaughn, who is elected from northern Hillsborough, plans to meet with the Carrollwood parents this week along with administrators from the district. She said she has questions about the K-8 proposal.

She said the change would incur short- and long-term costs and wonders who will cover them. And she questions the feasibility of converting a K-8 school that will offer the same amenities and programs as conventional middle schools.

“I am just looking to have realistic conversations with everybody involved,” Vaughn said.

The entrance to John Quincy Adams Middle School, 10201 North Blvd., Tampa
The entrance to John Quincy Adams Middle School, 10201 North Blvd., Tampa [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]

She acknowledged school equity and diversity are challenging when families have so many options. In addition to choice, magnet and charter schools, they can avail themselves of state scholarships to private schools or enroll their children in virtual programs that became popular during the pandemic.

The result can be damaging for schools that lose high-performing students and community support. “It’s almost like a cycle, and how do you break that cycle?” Vaughn asked.

Vaughn said she is encouraged by the work of a New York consulting firm, WXY studio, that will help the district redraw attendance boundaries, with diversity as one of its goals.

Related: Hillsborough residents asked to weigh in on possible school boundary changes

The question, then, becomes which families stay and which families leave a school that is struggling.

“We can’t take away school choice,” Vaughn said. “It makes us competitive, and it’s what we built ourselves around.”