Advocates say help is on the way for troubled Potter Elementary

Potter Elementary is a four-time F school whose troubles have attracted attention from local pastors and the school district.
Potter Elementary is a four-time F school whose troubles have attracted attention from local pastors and the school district.
Published May 15, 2017

TAMPA — Children who live near Potter Elementary School will have a new option in August. An early learning center is opening just steps away, serving kindergarten and first grade, with plans to expand later.

It's one of several projects under way to assist Potter, a four-time F school whose troubles have attracted widespread attention in recent months.

With pastors pressuring the school district to do more for Potter, a new committee will link its kindergarten teachers with the preschools nearby. And Potter will become a teacher training site for the University of South Florida.

"I think over time, all of these will pay off huge benefits," Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins said.

Leaders of the early learning center, which will be a charter school, say their plans began in a local think tank called the Evolution Institute.

The institute "takes science and research and applies it to today's issues (and) problems; education obviously is one of them," said Michelle Shimberg, who chairs the board that will oversee the Early Childhood Learning Center.

Shimberg spent decades as a volunteer in the schools and the district, and she belongs to a family well known for community service and philanthropy. Serving with her are retired educators Jerry and Virginia Lieberman.

Their strategies include project-based learning, which lets students focus on their interests, and a community center location that can draw in siblings and others outside the school rolls. Parents and other family members will rotate in and out to give lessons in art, music and other enrichment courses.

"The idea of developing strong relationships with families, with parents, with community members in support of the students and the teachers at the school, we believe, will help produce better outcomes," Shimberg said. She expects the benefits to extend far beyond the 54 students in kindergarten through second grade at the school.

Shimberg's group first approached the district with hopes of applying its strategies to district schools. Instead it was advised to open a charter school, a sometimes controversial vehicle that gets tax funding but is run independently.

Each class of 18 students will have a full-time aide in addition to the teacher.

One built-in advantage: Potter suffers from a high student mobility rate, meaning kids in the largely transient East Tampa neighborhood frequently move from home to home and school to school. But a child who moves can stay in the same charter school.

Eakins has called for a committee to look at preschools in the Potter attendance area. That group will find ways for the preschools to collaborate with Potter's kindergarten teachers, sharing information about students, families and teaching methods.

"You want the transition to be as smooth as possible," said Steve Knobl, chief executive officer of the Hillsborough County Early Learning Coalition, who is heading up the effort.

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Plans also are in place for a teacher leadership academy at Potter to mirror a new program at Mort Elementary School.

Although not one of the Eakins' seven "Elevate" schools, Mort this year became a "community school," supported by a network of charities and nonprofit organizations.

Part of that effort is the leadership academy, where teachers take advanced education courses, administered by USF, right where they work. Benefits include their professional growth and increased value as school leaders. The hope is that the same can happen at Potter.

All of these efforts share a common theme: To experiment in one school and share the knowledge gained with others.

Both Mort and Potter are on a list of long-struggling schools the Legislature targeted to be replaced by charter "schools of hope." But it is not yet known if that plan, which would rely on out-of-state providers, will materialize.

Shimberg and the Liebermans are creating the opposite — a homegrown charter school that will start small. And they are mindful of poverty in East Tampa, which often makes for stressful home environments and wary parents.

"What we want to do is to be that environment where people are engaged," Shimberg said. "They are engaged at all different levels and there are trusting relationships."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or Follow @marlenesokol.