Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

Hillsborough County Chief of Schools Harrison Peters meets a trio of Potter Elementary second graders during a tour of the school on the first day of class in 2016. Potter, which got an F last year from the state, is one of seven so-called "Elevate" schools targeted for special attention by the district. But district leaders are rethinking that strategy. [Times   |   2016]
Hillsborough County Chief of Schools Harrison Peters meets a trio of Potter Elementary second graders during a tour of the school on the first day of class in 2016. Potter, which got an F last year from the state, is one of seven so-called "Elevate" schools targeted for special attention by the district. But district leaders are rethinking that strategy. [Times | 2016]
Published Feb. 16, 2018

TAMPA — "Elevate," a Hillsborough County School District initiative that was to focus on seven troubled schools and use them as models for dozens more, is becoming but a memory as the district seeks instead to support all schools equally.

"We're more engaged than ever in doing that work," superintendent Jeff Eakins said in an interview last week.

But he said research and state actions have moved him away from the initial plan to single out the small group for intensive work.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Despite grand promises, change comes slowly to Tampa's four-time F school

Will the district eliminate the Elevate label altogether?

"It could be something that we talk about, absolutely," Eakins said.

But, he stressed, "we want to make sure everybody understands in this community that whether we change a name or not, the supports are going to continue to be there and grow."

"Elevate" is the name that replaced "Priority," something that was to be Eakins' signature initiative when he was named superintendent in 2015.

The new leader was bent on figuring out how to breathe success into long-struggling schools that are clustered in Hillsborough's poorest neighborhoods.

"If we can be the community that does that, we can possibly change the trajectory of student achievement, not only in Hillsborough County, but student achievement across the nation," he said at the time.

Eakins assigned longtime administrator Owen Young to research best practices across the nation in improving troubled schools. The plan was for Young to serve as area superintendent for the small group of schools, and have his own separate staff.

Months later, Eakins and Young named the seven schools: Potter, Miles, Edison and Booker T. Washington elementary schools; Sulphur Springs K-8; and Sligh and McLane middle schools. Six are in East Tampa or Sulphur Springs. The seventh, McLane, is in Brandon but serves a large population of students bused in from East Tampa, where all the middle schools are magnets.

The name was changed so as not to confuse it with the state turnaround process, which has a "priority" category.

More significantly, Young's job and department were eliminated during a reorganization in 2016. Young became an area superintendent in the east-central section of Hillsborough that includes Sligh and McLane.

Each of the eight area superintendents, Eakins said, would be in charge of improving those Elevate schools in his or her territory.

Results, on the ground, were mixed at first. Potter endured a chaotic year in 2016 and early 2017 in which many of its teachers fled because of unruly student behavior. It ended the school year with an F.

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Sulphur Springs, a D school, struggled in its transition from elementary to K-8 and had to delay adding the older grades.

Washington lagged in student test scores, with only three of its fifth graders reading at or above grade level in 2017. Like Potter, it earned an F.

RELATED: Change not fast enough at troubled schools, Hillsborough School Board says

Between 44 and 61 percent of students in the seven schools tested at the lowest level on the Florida Standards Assessment in reading. Those numbers were still discouraging in 2017, ranging from 47 percent at Miles and Sulphur Springs to 58 percent at Washington.

Eakins says his administration has worked all along both to shore up the Elevate schools and create systems districtwide that will give all schools strong principals and support teachers. For example:

• Area superintendents are now considered instructional leaders, where in their former role as area directors, they were concerned more with operational issues such as the condition of the buildings.

• Training initiatives such as the "principal pipeline" and "turnaround leadership" program groom principals to lead tough schools.

• Teachers, no longer subjected to peer evaluations, spend more time with mentors and in school-based training sessions. Some of the more accomplished are experimenting with "model classrooms" where newer teachers can observe them at work.

"Last year was the first year that we really had the structure in place," Eakins said. "And you saw three F schools moved to a C. You saw a lessening to the number of F schools."

In pivoting to an all-schools model of improvement, Eakins said he is was responding to changes in the state's school improvement system.

House Bill 7069, passed into law last year, accelerated timetables for turning schools around. And more such pressure could result from this year's legislative session.

Hillsborough now has seven schools — some, but not all, with the Elevate label — that will be turned over to an outside operator if they do not improve to at least a C after this spring's state exams.

In addition, the district has a total of 24 schools with state "turnaround" status.

State officials came down hard on Eakins in January when he went back on a promise to change principals in four of the schools.

In that kind of environment, it's hard to tell the difference between an Elevate school and the larger number in turnaround status.

About the only thing Elevate schools get that the others do not is extra support staff such as counselors, social workers, psychologists and behavioral specialists.

At a School Board workshop last week, Chief of Schools Harrison Peters said, "we would actually like to revisit the Elevate policy in general to see if there is still an appetite for it."

Some — such as Miles Elementary, which is now a C school — have improved enough to be taken off the list, he said.

"So it's a moving target. So what we've found is, it is more beneficial to provide guidance around how we support our highest need schools."

Eakins didn't argue, saying it might make sense just to combine the Elevate and turnaround systems for simplicity.

In the midst of all these changes, Eakins is focusing more attention on preschool needs of the district's low-income families as he seeks to address the reading deficiencies, which exist throughout the district.

With nearly half of all kindergarten students lacking the basic skills they need, he is working to add preschool classes to dozens elementary schools that are under-enrolled.

If there is one thing the district learned during Young's year of research, he said, it's that early childhood education pays huge dividends later on. "That was a game changer for many communities," he said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol