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

Fourth-graders working with fraction tiles get help from Ciera Fox, a new teacher at Potter Elementary in East Tampa.
Fourth-graders working with fraction tiles get help from Ciera Fox, a new teacher at Potter Elementary in East Tampa.
Published March 12, 2017

TAMPA — This was supposed to be the year things finally got better at Potter Elementary.

In July, when the state Board of Education asked Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins how he planned to turn around the four-time F school, he said the district had it handled.

"You will not see me back here," he promised.

Eakins had given one of his lieutenants a year to explore ways to improve troubled schools. He had said the resurgence of Potter and other Hillsborough campuses would be a model for the nation.

Potter's teachers, he said, would be carefully screened. The district needed to get this right.

And yet.

He gave the East Tampa school a first-time principal, and a staff that was left wanting.

On opening day in August, the faculty was five teachers short. It included many teachers who were new to the district and, in some cases, new to teaching.

Sixteen Potter teachers left the district in the first half of the school year, according to personnel reports. And as the year wore on, Potter scrambled to keep all the vacancies filled.

The turnover means students have been bounced from teacher to teacher. Some have been taught by substitutes, a situation that led to police being called in one instance.

Some teachers blamed student behavior. Others said they were not up to the job.

"I would not put a brand new teacher at Potter," said Emily Libby, 28, who left in November after she lost control of her first-grade class. "I had a fight break out my first week."

A district administration that had promised to do everything it could to dig Potter out of trouble had fallen short once again.

But the story of Potter, which is 87 percent black and 99 percent low-income, is not just about a superintendent who made ambitious promises. His bosses, the members of the Hillsborough County School Board, had a role to play as well.

At one board meeting in 2016, Eakins spent more than an hour detailing a cabinet reorganization and listing job cuts, down to secretaries. He said nothing about his decision to close the Office of Priority Schools he had created to focus on schools like Potter.

And no one asked him about it either.

• • •

The numbers are grim and have been for years.

Fifty-one percent of Potter children who took the Florida Standards Assessment in reading last year tested in the lowest category, Level 1. That's more than twice the district and state rates.

It gets worse over time. In fifth grade, no one scored in Level 5, the highest. One scored a Level 4. Only eight children — 11 percent — tested at a fifth-grade level.

Eakins told the state board he replaced the principal and most of the faculty because of a "clear lack of instructional fidelity," meaning they were not delivering the curriculum consistently and accurately.

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The new principal, Melanie Hill, was endorsed by leaders in the surrounding community, he said.

Interviewed recently with four high-ranking administrators by her side, Hill acknowledged the loss of teachers might have contributed to the children's behavior issues.

But she said there has been progress in recent months, and she is optimistic about the direction the school is taking.

"We are working to change behavior, and it's not going to change overnight," Hill said.

"We have to stay the course. We have to believe in our students. We have to make sure we are building relationships."

The current push to help Potter and schools like it goes back nearly two years.

"It is time we tackled these issues head on," Eakins told the School Board in June 2015. "I want to be the school district that takes the lead on this. Our students deserve that."

That desire led to the Office of Priority Schools, which Eakins directed to do a deep dive into the national research and then focus intently on a small group of schools.

Fast-forward to April.

The seven schools had a new title, "Elevate." They no longer had their own department. Instead, their area superintendents were in charge. Eakins said he expected each of these administrators to be knowledgeable in school turnarounds, and up to the task.

In his July address to the state board, Eakins said his human resources team would recruit Potter's teachers carefully. Hill could merely "sell" the job and assign the teachers to grades.

The reality: Departures began barely a month into the school year with an art teacher and a first-grade teacher. Most of the second-grade faculty turned over. The guidance counselor left. The media specialist retired early.

Shakira Latimore said she was considered a pro because she was in her second year at Potter, teaching second grade. "I had my classroom managed and under control," she said. "So they started to give me all of the behavior kids."

In the adjoining class, which had a new teacher, "I had to hear desks turned over, tables turned over, screaming because the kids were fighting. My instruction was being compromised because my kids could barely hear me over the kids next door."

Hill, hearing her story, denied that the school assigns difficult students disproportionately.

Edna Molina came to Potter in October to teach first grade. Recently arrived from Puerto Rico, she had been a middle school bilingual aide.

She lasted less than month.

"I had one boy, he was very heavy, 134 pounds," she said. "He just wanted to punch and kick the other kids. The kids were scared of him. And I was afraid that something was going to happen."

Libby, the first-grade teacher, said she was new to the profession and believes her experience at Potter will make her better. But she was asked to leave. Fights broke out "pretty much every day," she said.

Everyone feared a child would get hurt.

Teachers weren't the only ones to notice problems. Ashley Starkes said she moved her son, a first-grader, to a charter school after she visited Potter in the fall.

"The kids were out of control," she said. "There were students dancing on tables. They were not listening. There were desks turned over. My question to the school was, how will you even be able to give them grades?"

Her son's teacher left, she said, telling parents she wanted more time with her family. Starkes said she asked repeatedly when they would get a new teacher. She couldn't get an answer.

Camille Collins' daughter was in the fourth-grade class where Jermaine Eady, a substitute hired through Kelly Staffing Services, lost his temper on Dec. 13 and was removed from the school.

According to another child interviewed by Tampa police, the kids were rowdy that day. One called Eady "gay."

Eady, the child said, shoved a desk at him and yelled, "I'll body slam you and break your jaw." He said he had a gun and was from the streets, the student said.

Eady denied the allegations to police and told them he quit his Kelly job that same day. Hill said the event was an extreme anomaly.

She does use five long-term substitutes, and considers them valued members of her team.

Meanwhile, the district discovered that the national research on high-needs schools is "all over the page," Eakins said recently. There is no silver bullet, he said. Improvement requires "setting the right conditions." That includes owning up to problems students have that interfere with learning.

He insisted Potter is making progress at the correct pace, saying he learned from his own experience that it can take years for a new principal to get a struggling school on track.

• • •

Potter's history of problems has not gone unnoticed by civil rights leaders, who say black students get an inferior education that amounts to discrimination.

"There is no doubt an equity problem there," said Saba Baptiste, education chair of the local NAACP.

"The superintendent never made the administrative decision to use his power to put more seasoned teachers there. The principal is too unseasoned. The economy has improved, so there are more jobs and people are leaving."

Critics say that under state law, Eakins could declare an emergency, bypass the union and appoint staff to Potter. But union leaders say that's a sure-fire way to chase teachers away.

Chief of schools Harrison Peters doesn't like that option either. "You want people who want to be around your children," he said.

On Tuesday, the School Board approved its first-ever policy for Elevate schools. It includes a requirement that the schools be fully staffed on the first day of classes. But, at the union's urging, the board removed a passage that would have allowed the superintendent to assign teachers and principals "at his sole discretion."

Peters and other district leaders are working on plans to get more strong teachers into struggling schools.

A new program helps principals and assistant principals pay for their graduate work while grooming them for positions in so-called "turnaround" schools. This year, it is expanding to include teachers who, as part of the bargain, will work in high-needs schools.

Like Eakins, they said assembling a strong faculty can take years. They said a new teacher might excel while a seasoned teacher might not.

"I think there are people who believe in Potter and think they can come here and be successful," Peters said. "And you don't realize you're not ready until you get here."

Patricia Pekovsky, the Potter media specialist who retired in December, suggested each teacher be given a full-time aide.

But, Peters said, aside from the cost, "I worry about the message that we're sending to children when we say, basically, we have to have two adults to control you."

• • •

On a rainy Wednesday, Potter did not appear out of control during a Tampa Bay Times visit. Children walked calmly and greeted guests politely. In Ciera Fox's fourth-grade class, students used fraction tiles for a math lesson. They were attentive and engaged.

Fox, 28 and new to the job, is one of Hill's "rock star teachers." She attended Potter as a child.

Raised by a single mother who worked nights as a Hillsborough County sheriff's dispatcher, Fox recalls times when teachers questioned her intelligence.

Invariably, her mother would set them straight.

Fox favors repetition and routines. Kids must take responsibility for doing what is expected, she said. She also does what she can to make them comfortable, although, she admitted, "there are moments when even I feel uncomfortable."

She offered the hypothetical example of a child who overreacts when another child bumps into him by accident. "He might immediately be upset and ready to react," she said. "He might think he has to defend himself."

Instead of overreacting herself, Fox tries to bring the child "to a calm moment" so they can discuss what happened, how he felt and how he might react the next time.

Eakins' vision is for teachers like Fox to recruit like-minded educators to Potter.

"You're making an impact and you're creating a story for your career that you want to tell someone else about, that helps inspire others," he said.

Hill, whose background is in special education, said she's trying every strategy she can to improve the school.

She created a "calming room," where groups of 20 children practice meditation techniques. She favors positive reinforcement, from the tried-and-true coupons for the school store to yellow "Potter Positive" notes taped to her office window.

In addition to the steps Hill has taken, School Board member April Griffin — also a former Potter student — has initiated a flurry of activity.

While the official role of a school board is to approve policy and hold administrators accountable for carrying it out, Griffin said she could no longer sit by and watch Potter falter.

With Eakins' consent, Griffin met with teachers. She pushed for new computers so children will not have to prepare for state tests using paper and pencils, and more training for the staff.

She suggested Larry Sykes, assistant superintendent for outreach and school improvement, become a project manager for Potter. The work they are doing could result in new plumbing and a community clinic.

A group of pastors met with Hill in February. They served dinner at a parent conference and pledged to return.

The state is giving Potter two years to improve to a C, Eakins said. But Griffin wants to maintain the sense of urgency.

"We lost a lot of time, and what we don't have is time," she said. "These kids have waited too long."

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