Students are chronically absent. The vast majority cannot pass state reading tests. And they’re often taught by substitute teachers.
For an hour on Tuesday, the Hillsborough County School Board heard detailed descriptions of Village of Excellence Academy and Village of Excellence Middle School, two publicly funded yet independently managed charter schools with a combined enrollment of 267 students.
The schools’ leaders also discussed plans for improvement, but all board members could do was listen, answer questions and make suggestions. State law would not allow the board to close the two schools, even if members wanted to. Tuesday’s workshop was procedural, required when a charter school gets a D or F grade from the state.
Village of Excellence, the older of the two, rated F, opened in 2000. The Village of Excellence Middle School, now with its second D, opened in 2014.
While about half of all public school students pass the state reading exams, that number in 2022 was 8% in the elementary school and 12% in the middle school.
Glennis Perez, the new principal of the elementary school, described a staff consisting largely of “novice teachers.” Nearly two-thirds are long-term substitutes. Only 7% have their state reading endorsement, a level of training that broadens understanding of how students learn and how to serve them.
“My biggest goal is building teacher capacity,” said Perez, who arrived at the charter school after an unsuccessful run as principal of the public Spoto High School. Perez described extensive teacher training at Village of Excellence and “in-the-moment coaching.”
Board member Stacy Hahn warned Perez that none of this coaching will matter much if the school does not have a stable faculty. “For you to keep shedding teachers and investing in professional development is obviously quite costly, and you’re going to get the same result,” Hahn said.
The Hillsborough board has been chastened in the past for trying to exert authority over charter schools, which now serve close to 17% of the district’s public school students.
In 2021, the board voted to close four other schools for a variety of reasons that included their services to students with disabilities. State leaders accused the board of acting illegally, as the law defines very limited grounds for closure, and threatened financial sanctions. The board reversed its four votes, and the schools remained open.
Nevertheless, board member Lynn Gray said Tuesday she was not comfortable with what she learned about Village of Excellence. She cited its history of F grades in 2016 and 2018. She also cited statistics from the district’s charter school office that show only two of the school’s 11 teachers are certified. Perez did not dispute those numbers. “I myself as a board member, I’m hesitant,” Gray said.
There were suggestions from other board members. When Perez said nearly 75% of the students were absent 15 or more days in the last school year, they asked why, and she said health and transportation were common issues. They suggested she hire a school nurse to help with the health problems.
Both Perez and Lakeisha Maddox, principal of the middle school, said they are pushing hard for better attendance. Perez said school staff contact parents after three days of absences and visit the home after 10. Maddox said her staff is encouraging parents to come up with a backup plan for days when something goes wrong and the child needs a ride.
With the first set of state testing data in hand, both schools reported that a great majority of students are below where they should be performing for their grade in reading and math. In the middle school, none of the eighth graders are at their grade level in either subject.
Maddox said her school is aiming for 30% in both subjects for all grades by the end of the year, and 50% in 2023-24. “We know these are audacious goals, but we are willing to put in the work to improve,” she said.