As Hillsborough's first 'priority' school, Sligh Middle hopes to be a model

Eighth-grader Duane Lynn sits with his classmates during an assembly at Sligh Middle School in Tampa on Nov. 9. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Eighth-grader Duane Lynn sits with his classmates during an assembly at Sligh Middle School in Tampa on Nov. 9. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 30, 2015

TAMPA — Things were so tense the night the Hillsborough County School Board named Shellie Blackwood- Green as Sligh Middle School's new principal, her 9-year-old son asked if the teachers even liked her.

It made no difference.

"I had already made the decision that, if not me, then who?" said Blackwood-Green, 46. "To me, this is a calling and a purpose."

Blackwood-Green, who cut her teaching teeth in the South Bronx, is the fourth principal in five years at the F-rated school just south of Sulphur Springs. Last year, police showed up at Sligh 27 times. And with room for more than 1,100 students, enrollment stands at under 500.

The district is stepping in with new help, recently naming Sligh as its first "priority school," a designation that brings an extra measure of attention from administrators who say they want to meet the needs of high-poverty, high-crime communities.

But what, exactly, is the plan, not only for Sligh but also for similar schools with the same or worse problems? And how, exactly, will Blackwood-Green succeed where others have failed?

District officials say they will work on those issues as their priority school program plays out in the coming months.

As for the principal's job, a strong resume is not enough. Both of Blackwood-Green's predecessors at Sligh had doctoral degrees.

A successful principal needs a unique and hard-to-define skills set, able to cut through the morale issues that so often plague students and teachers, said Owen Young, the district's area superintendent for priority schools, a new position.

Young lays out the challenge: "We're looking at structural barriers that have consistently plagued schools — curricular barriers, instructional barriers, behavioral barriers, community barriers. We're looking at (low) parental involvement, high poverty, geographical locations. If you talk about the East Tampa corridor, that will give you an idea."

Test scores at nearby Van Buren Middle School are even lower than Sligh's. McLane Middle in Brandon buses roughly half of its students from East Tampa and reports large numbers of suspensions and arrests. Other schools — some of them with successful magnet programs — contend with high percentages of students moving in and out or low graduation rates.

By winter break, the district intends to name eight to 10 priority schools, then spend the next five months researching how other communities choose the right principals and supports to deal with their high-needs students. Changes aren't expected until the 2016-17 school year begins.

So, for now, Sligh leads the way.

In the three months since Blackwood-Green stepped in, the results have been encouraging. But it's impossible to know how long they will last.

• • •

Arriving in July at a school in turmoil, Blackwood-Green moved ahead largely on instinct. She invited teachers to collaborate on a mission, vision and discipline plan. Or, as she called it, "an excellence plan. We want it to be positive."

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The school has two success coaches, enough to get to know the students and counsel them when they have trouble.

Posters in the hallways break down the discouraging statistics for students who rack up absences or have problems with behavior. One of the more sobering numbers: Of those who are suspended three or more times before high school, roughly half make it to graduation.

Blackwood-Green discusses odds like these with the kids at lunchtime. They call her "a ninja." She stays visible.

Teachers must speak to each other properly and respectfully to set an example for the kids. Students "need to see what that looks like," she said. "Everything has to be different when they walk into this building."

So far this year, attendance is up. Tardies are a challenge and Blackwood-Green will not let students use lockers until they learn to get to class on time.

Unlike last year, records show only two criminal incidents in the first 10 weeks. One involved a phone stolen from a child who was sleeping in history class. In the other, a student brought a stun gun to school because he feared he'd be shot in another dispute over a phone.

The child with the stun gun has struggled emotionally since he lost his father in 2014, his grandmother said.

Dealing with trauma is a central focus of the priority effort, Young said.

"By no means do you blame poverty for the behavior," he said. "But the reality is there are certain spinoffs of what those conditions create and we have to adequately prepare our teachers to be able to contend with that in addition to teaching and learning."

Dallas Jackson, Sligh's previous principal, last year ran head-first into the issue of community violence spilling into the schools.

A fight began when a student was accused of disrespecting the memory of a local teen who had been shot to death. Questioned by staff, the student said he had a gun off-campus for self-defense.

Weeks later, a counselor accused Jackson of removing the student from the school rolls instead of helping him. That was around the time teachers complained to their union about Jackson's management practices.

The district sent its own inspection team, which turned in a laundry list of deficiencies. Furniture and equipment were broken and defaced. Classrooms lacked visual display. Supervision was lax. Students were yelled at.

Blackwood-Green said she did not read the report.

Instead, she started fresh with a faculty that was largely new to the school and, in some cases, the district. She interviewed carefully for staff who shared her passion for urban education.

"This is not a place to try out teaching," she said.

• • •

Hillsborough has 136 schools, not including privately run charters, that get federal antipoverty aid. Fifty — including Sligh and Van Buren — are the lowest-income "Renaissance" schools and thus prime candidates to make the district's priority list.

While Sulpur Springs children can go to Sligh or Van Buren, East Tampa's middle school students are bused out of the neighborhood, with hundreds landing in Brandon's McLane Middle School.

A Tampa Bay Times report in April found that McLane was one of the most violent schools in the district for a decade. Things calmed down after principal Dina Langston took over in late 2013, but arrests spiked this school year with five in the first 10 weeks. In addition, four kids from McLane were referred to a court diversionary program after a video showed they beat a fellow student on the bus ride home to East Tampa.

Langston points to more encouraging statistics. Discipline and bus referrals are down, she said, and fewer students are failing classes. They get help at lunchtime instead of having to stay after school.

"We have 140-some kids on the honor roll," she said. "More than half of our students have A's in conduct."

The East Tampa situation is not a simple one, as school leaders fear the effects of resegregation if they were to stop the busing, said Young, the area superintendent.

"It's always been a stigma of how do we even get the best teachers into those communities," he said, "There are a host of other things that we have to try to work through."

Statistically, high-poverty schools are most likely to attract new teachers. Principal turnover is an issue, requiring the district to hire strategically.

Ultimately he hopes "priority school" will cease to be a negative label. "We want parents to say, 'If that's a priority movement school, I want my child there,' " Young said.

• • •

Arriving at 7:30 a.m., many of Sligh's students are dressed in medical scrubs. Since 1997, the school has had a health sciences magnet program. Enrollment had dropped to 80, but it's up to 145.

Here, children of cooks and construction workers talk of college and careers.

Eric Patino wants to be a veterinarian. Lilian Gutierrez wants to be an ear, nose and throat specialist.

"I like babies and I want to be a midwife," said Tamiya Stewart. She finds the classes easy enough after the animal science program at Cahoon Elementary. She's also considering a veterinary career.

For others, school is a daily struggle.

Lanita Lucas, a success coach, described a breakthrough with a child who was experiencing depression that stemmed from multiple struggles in her family. The child barely ate or spoke. But a home visit seemed to turn things around.

"Mom said it was the first time ever someone had come to the home," Lucas said. "And her oldest set of twins were 18."

Lucas, 40, is from the neighborhood and went to Sligh as a child. "We were taught to respect all elders," she said. "This generation has to be instructed to say 'yes' or 'yes, ma'am' instead of a simple 'yeah' or 'huh.' "

Lucas doesn't mind.

"I'm at home," she said. "This is my home."

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