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Brandon High moves in new directions to stay competitive

In an era of increased choice, traditional schools like Brandon are reinventing themselves.
 
Sasha Fowler (standing) works with students, from left: Terriel Terry, 14; Khushi Patel, 14; Oriana Tarrant, 14; and Leah-Marie Thomas, 15 in her critical thinking class at Brandon High on Dec. 16.
Sasha Fowler (standing) works with students, from left: Terriel Terry, 14; Khushi Patel, 14; Oriana Tarrant, 14; and Leah-Marie Thomas, 15 in her critical thinking class at Brandon High on Dec. 16. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 28, 2022|Updated Dec. 28, 2022

Heads together, the ninth grade students at Brandon High School seemed to be chasing clues to an escape room game.

In reality, teacher Sasha Fowler said, they were reviewing what they had learned in her critical thinking skills class — concepts like logical fallacy, claim and reasoning, and problem solving.

Two students designed the exercise, building on a sense of ownership that has made Fowler’s class one of the most popular on campus.

“Problem solving allows me to think more, so I will have better ideas,” said Kennedy Weaver, 14. “It will help me with other classes too.”

Students work a puzzle during Sasha Fowler’s critical thinking class at Brandon High on Dec. 16.
Students work a puzzle during Sasha Fowler’s critical thinking class at Brandon High on Dec. 16. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Fowler is one of two teachers at Brandon who this year kicked off the school’s Cambridge Advanced International Certification, or AICE program, a rigorous curriculum that combines elements of International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement.

Now with 169 students and preparing to increase its course offerings in 2023-24, the program marks an effort by Brandon High to boost its profile in a community where many have found other options for their children.

“It’s really exposing them to another opportunity of a different type of curriculum,” said Jeremy Klein, now in his third year as principal.

But Klein and his team are not just focusing on academics.

They are also moving rapidly into the community school movement, forging partnerships with area businesses, charitable organizations and, in some cases, individual alumni who want to help meet student needs.

“An amazing amount of people showed up in ways I never would have thought,” said Lauren Leto, a former social studies teacher who now works as the community school coordinator.

Lauren Leto, the community school coordinator, surveys the food and supply pantry at Brandon High on Dec. 16.
Lauren Leto, the community school coordinator, surveys the food and supply pantry at Brandon High on Dec. 16. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The twin initiatives are happening at a pivotal time for Brandon, a school known largely for its wrestling success.

Like other traditional schools, C-rated Brandon is fighting for market share in an era of immense competition.

Of Hillsborough’s 28 high schools, Brandon has one of the lowest “stay rates,” meaning the percentage of public school students who are zoned for the school, based on home address, remain there.

One third opt instead for the IB program at Strawberry Crest High, the dual enrollment program at Armwood High, the all-magnet Tampa Bay Technical High, or a variety of choice and charter schools.

A new boundary plan that now awaits school board approval could fill some of the school’s empty seats. One of three options would bring in 471 students from Riverview High and 73 from Bloomingdale. Another would transfer 201 students from Spoto High and 213 from Riverview.

No one can predict which of the options, if any, will be chosen. And, with school choice still a factor, no one can say what Brandon’s population, now 1,566, will look like when the plans take form.

Klein has worked before in schools that faced challenges from competition. A graduate of West Hillsborough’s Leto High, he returned to his alma mater years later as an administrator. While Bloomingdale and Newsome high schools are bigger and newer than Brandon, Klein said he appreciates the benefits of a smaller, more intimate campus.

Arriving at Brandon, he said, “you could tell, you could feel that there were definite traditions. And an element of coziness, and people that loved this community. Even with people who work here. Their die-hard commitment to this building ultimately is something that I’ve seen. ”

Erica Hartmann, 31, looks back at her years as a Brandon student with mixed feelings. She was not happy in those years and it had nothing to do with the school. There were problems at home.

“I wasn’t a bad kid and I wasn’t a great kid,” she said. “I just flew under the radar.”

She wishes someone had reached out to her in those years.

Now the owner of a home-organizing business and a mother of three, Hartmann is part of a group that recently reactivated Brandon’s dormant PTSA.

She is working closely with Leto on the community school project. Wherever they go, they talk about the many needs at the school — for adult mentors, food, clothing, school supplies and jobs, both for students and their parents.

“People often want to help, but they don’t know how,” Hartmann said.

In a short period of time, they have seen a response.

A financial services business donated boxes of granola bars for teachers to hand out to hungry students. Businesses have allowed them to put out donation boxes near their entrances. A Honey Baked Ham store hired eight Brandon students and a special education aide who needed a side job.

Hartmann got friends and neighbors to buy items from an Amazon wish list that she posted on social media. She told her clients that if they donated their discarded clothing and household items to Brandon High instead of other charities, she would give them discounts on their next organizing service.

They found someone to underwrite a $350 program that teaches students coping skills. A local artist decorated the community school room for free. Staff and volunteers have been stocking shelves with clothing, school supplies and toiletries. They are creating a food bank.

A box that is used to collect donations for students is wrapped and ready for placement at a local business partner to help the food and supply pantry at Brandon High.
A box that is used to collect donations for students is wrapped and ready for placement at a local business partner to help the food and supply pantry at Brandon High. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Conscious of the sensitivity that surrounds any charity, Leto gets students involved in unpacking the donations and putting them on display. She tells them they can “go shopping” first, and sometimes they walk away with designer items. “I feel like it’s already become normalized,” she said.

Klein and Leto know it is impossible to measure the intangible benefits of helping students feel more secure and supported. But they believe intuitively that the school is becoming stronger as a result.

“The kids feel invested and the community is starting to reinvest in the school,” Leto said. “For a long time, our kids have been in survival mode. The question now is, how can we make it a place where the kids thrive?”

Academics are moving in the right direction as well. Although Brandon was not able to climb to a B grade this year, it increased its number of points toward that grade by 33.

“We are on an uptick,” Klein said.