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  1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough's new chief of schools: 'We have to act with haste'

TAMPA — Harrison Peters remembers the 10th-grade teacher who said he wasn't college material, and the one who said, "I love you, I believe in you and I'm not going to allow you to fail."

He shares those stories every chance he gets. "What we tell children, it matters," he says to teachers.

That is, when he isn't quizzing them about what they do, why they do it and how exactly they will make sure it's working.

Just try to keep up.

Peters, 42, has worked in Orlando, North Carolina, Chicago, Houston and, since July 20, the downtown Tampa headquarters of the Hillsborough County School District.

The new $150,000 chief of schools was a surprise hire to all but a handful of insiders. Now he oversees eight area offices, some 250 schools and 15,000 teachers.

Peters's mother had to give him up when he was a child. He lost a stepfather and a brother to suicide. A much younger brother wound up in prison. Peters blames the schools. He has two sons. So like many African-American parents, he said, he jumps when the phone rings.

As an educator, he has admired Hillsborough for years. But it pains him that a system with so many accolades has pockets of severe neglect.

He wants to shake things up, and he just might.

Or, if history repeats himself, he will move on to another place where black and brown children need better schools.

• • •

During his rounds on the opening day of school last week, Peters began at Egypt Lake Elementary, a last-minute stop to check on a principal who was in a car wreck that morning.

At Brandon's Yates Elementary, he asked about online grades and teacher planning time. At Brandon High, he wanted to know how the school tracks ninth- graders' progress, and what it does when a student can't read.

Each question led to another, then another. That habit is one of his strengths, said assistant superintendent Tricia McManus, who recruited Harris. It leads people to question their practice, and "it holds us accountable," she said.

Potter Elementary, in East Tampa, was the fourth stop. The school has been F-rated for the past four years. Half of the children who tested last spring read poorly. It is on three state and district turnaround programs.

Yet, the district opened Potter on Wednesday with five teacher vacancies, three in the fourth grade. "We'll talk," Peters told Melanie Hill, 38, the school's first-time principal.

Back in the car, he weighed his words carefully for the first and only time that morning. He praised Hill's energy and temperament. "It's going to have to be an all-hands effort to get Potter to where we believe Potter can be, and she possesses some of the intangibles to do that," he said.

He mused later about the inequity he has observed in a place that is seemingly so much better off than, say, Chicago, where officials would celebrate a first week of school without gunfire.

"We have such a great school district and we have such a great county and Tampa is such a great area with so much promise," he said.

"And what I wonder is how did we take our eye off the ball in some schools in some neighborhoods? We've got some students and some schools that are literally in the ICU and we have to get the educational defibrillator out and we've got to resuscitate those schools, and I always ask, how does that happen?"

Then there is the bigger question of how to fix it. Some of the answers might be radical.

"Send me a bus and I'll bus them all to the nearest high-performing school with a certified teacher," he said. "I think everything is on the table. And I don't want to create hysteria, but it has to be a moment. It has to be a moment."

• • •

Peters' childhood in Houston and Pensacola helps him appreciate the necessity of meeting student needs that sometimes seem extraordinary.

His mother had him as a teenager, he said. His father left. His stepfather was a drug dealer. After he died, Peters' mother, by his account, put the kids to sleep by blowing marijuana smoke in their faces so she could work. "She couldn't afford a babysitter."

Social services intervened, and he wound up with his grandmother, whom he described as having a second-grade education, but a Ph.D. in discipline.

"When I look at schools and what schools are traditionally responsible for, and conversely what they deal with, we've got to shorten that gap," he said. "Our kids bring so much to the table. And in some instances it's not fair, but we see the realities every day when we don't address those needs."

After service in the Navy and college at the University of West Florida, Peters was a teacher in Apopka. The job, he found out, included being "the big brother, the father, the guidance counselor, the mother walking kids home, helping moms pay their rent, helping dads buy some food so they could feed the family."

After 11 years in Orange County, he spent a year as a high school principal in Charlotte, N.C. When the opportunity came a year later to try and improve Chicago's schools as a chief area officer, he grabbed it.

He moved to Houston in 2014 to be near his mother, who was ill and with whom he had reconciled, he said. A year into that job, he was reassigned from chief of schools officer to school support officer in what some called a demotion. Peters described it as fallout from a budget crisis.

Over the years, he did consulting for the Bill & Melinda Gates and Wallace foundations, which have relationships with Hillsborough. He impressed McManus, the assistant superintendent — and superintendent Jeff Eakins. In the midst of a shake-up that had 13 administrators reapply for their jobs, Eakins and McManus wondered if Peters might be a piece of the puzzle.

Larry Sykes, chief of schools, wasn't asked to reapply. But Eakins decided to put Sykes in charge of community engagement. McManus vetted Peters because of the many job changes. "He comes with glowing recommendations," she said.

His mantra is that "schools were built to educate kids and not for us to have jobs." He's been known to hand out pink slips at community meetings.

Translation: Fire me if I don't get the results I promised.

• • •

Hillsborough is known for its leaders' longevity. In his reorganization, Eakins kept most of the 13 cabinet members. McManus said she and Eakins hope Peters will make a career here.

But there are no guarantees. "I'm always saying I may not be what's best for you, but somewhere in this country they'll hire a black man who has an elementary education degree," he said.

And while he respects the collegial tone Eakins has set for the district, that can only go so far.

"We have to hold people accountable for results," he said. "And if we're not producing the results, then we have to understand the impact on children. And we have to act with haste, and be swift, when kids aren't learning."

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

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