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After years of spiraling downward, will Hudson Elementary finally find success?

Hudson Elementary fourth-grade teacher Sandra Rivera helps Landon Gerczak, left, Dominick Rasberry, right, and their classmates with a lesson last week Monday.
Published Aug. 23, 2016

HUDSON — Third grader Tristan Downing-Genirs stopped working on his first-day-of-school assignment, rose from his seat and headed toward a classroom supply shelf.

The 8-year-old didn't make it far before teacher Holly Weber stopped him: "Tristan, when we get up from our chair, what do we do?"

The boy spun around, slid his seat under the table and apologized. It was a small rule to forget, pushing in his chair, but one of many new things that F-rated Hudson Elementary had put in place as part of a major effort to improve its long-declining academic fortunes.

Unlike some failing schools, Hudson's is not the familiar tale of policy decisions that left the campus segregated and poor, with the least experienced teachers in the neediest classrooms. Rather, the school got extra attention as it tried to improve. Yet none of it seemed to work.

It is an educational mystery that has puzzled school officials for more than a decade, but they are intent on finally solving it this year.

On the first day of classes Aug. 15, children returned to a school with almost all new teachers, new curriculum and a revised set of behavior expectations. They wore uniforms — a first for the Pasco County School District. They heard themselves called "scholars" rather than "students," and couldn't help but notice inspirational messages plastered all over campus.

"I really like it," said Tristan, dressed in his red collared shirt and blue shorts. "I liked it before we even started."

So, too, did Weber, one of the few holdovers from the past year's faculty. All her students showed up in uniform, listened intently and got engaged in their work right away, she observed.

"I am ecstatic," she said, hopeful that, this time, Hudson will break through years of stagnation.

• • •

Back in 2003, the school earned an A in Florida's accountability system. Two-thirds of its students were testing at grade level or above, with more making gains in their subjects.

Since then, though, it has spiraled downward.

By 2008, the school faced mandatory "restructuring" after failing to meet federal yearly progress requirements for five straight years. It has been under government oversight ever since.

In response, teams of educators dived through data, letting it drive lesson decisions. The school adopted a more targeted system for addressing student behavior problems. It brought in gifted services, opened a reading resource room and addressed students' social needs with a full-time psychologist.

The list goes on. Much of it looks like what troubled schools do after reading the latest research.

Yet at Hudson, while some areas showed momentary signs of life, nothing seemed to click. Teachers who didn't leave the school suggested that, despite the best intentions, Hudson didn't have the processes in place, or the motivators, to maintain initiatives over the long haul.

Over time, the community around the school also became poorer. Last year, 83 percent of the students were receiving free and reduced-price lunches — up from 64 percent a decade earlier. That could be one reason for the school's slide, but many schools with the same or higher poverty levels get higher grades than Hudson.

Hudson's A slid to B in 2004. Then came C's from 2005 through 2010, then D's from 2011 through 2014 and, for the last two years, F's. Its percentage of students reading on grade level dropped from 71 percent in 2011 to 28 percent in 2016. In math, that rate declined over the same time frame from 65 to 23 percent.

Most of its declines occurred under one longtime principal, Linda McCarthy, who retired in 2013. Tracy Graziaplene, who ran nearby Northwest Elementary, took over for the better part of the next three years, but struggled with issues such as finding and keeping qualified staff.

Of course, some of the drops could be attributed to changing state standards and tests, which made it tougher to score well. But district leaders wouldn't lay the blame entirely on the state's system, which other low-performing schools have navigated more adeptly.

• • •

This past spring, superintendent Kurt Browning asked Dawn Scilex to lead the school back from the brink. Scilex most recently had brought nearby Fox Hollow Elementary from an F to a C, while also improving its staff morale and increasing community involvement.

Before accepting the post, Scilex had some demands of her own. She wanted her assistant principal, Karyn Kinzie, to take over Fox Hollow to keep their philosophy intact. And she wanted to pick her own Hudson team, a "coalition of the willing," as area superintendent Todd Cluff put it.

Hudson now has a new assistant principal, a community assessment team focused on students' social needs, and about 65 percent different teachers. Those who stayed, like art teacher Colleen Moschner, said they knew they faced added demands, but they welcomed the challenge.

"Unfortunately, we feel a lot more of the failures than the successes," Moschner said during a voluntary summer training session. "There's a lot of kids that really need us."

Scilex brought a new sense of optimism to what had become a downtrodden school, where parents like Kerry Duck said staff were kind and well meaning, but the parents and community were not always welcomed.

Duck pulled her daughter from the school this year.

In short order, Scilex got a local business to donate money for free weekly dinners, where parents can learn more how to help their children. She found a donor to provide 1,200 uniform shirts, so every child could have at least two.

She surveyed parents and students, and then worked to incorporate their ideas — including reducing bullying and creating a sense of community — into the school's improvement plans.

"There's been a major culture shift at our school," said Marissa Montano, a fifth-grade teacher in her third year at Hudson. "I'm very positive about this school year."

Montano cited the uniforms as the most visible change, and new structures and systems as key to reaching and sustaining high expectations. But she said there's also something intangible that didn't exist before.

"All I can say is, it's a different feeling this year," Montano said. "I can't say they didn't try things before. Maybe this is just the right fit."

Scilex believes it.

At a spring job fair, she told potential applicants of her desire to hire teachers who are passionate and dedicated. The work of transforming a school will be difficult, she promised.

"But when we have all the right players in place," she said, "we can change a community."

• • •

A few months later, defending her school's improvement plan to the Florida Board of Education, she was asked if she had everything she needed.

"I feel like I have the right people in the right strategic places to move this school to a C. Absolutely," she responded.

Shawn Lawson, who recently moved into the area, is impressed so far. The father of three home-schooled his children for five years, but decided to send them into a more social setting.

He said he knew about Hudson's troubles, but chose to enroll his third-grader Chloe there anyway, after learning of the school's improvement efforts.

"We do have high expectations. No question about it. It is our child's education," Lawson said. "But we also have to be a part of it. You can't just wave a magic wand. … The area is challenged. That just means there's a lot of opportunity."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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