Mindful of challenges, Hillsborough schools re-open with high hopes

Janessa Horsford, 5, says goodbye to her parents, Julytsa and Nigel Horsford, on her first day of kindergarten at Lake Magdalene Elementary School.
Janessa Horsford, 5, says goodbye to her parents, Julytsa and Nigel Horsford, on her first day of kindergarten at Lake Magdalene Elementary School.
Published Aug. 21, 2013


Sonia Coleman walked through the class in six-inch platform shoes, making eye contact with 13 fifth-graders.

She went over the school rules. She asked them to describe a proud memory. In what she later called an assessment, she had them copy and answer the question: "What are the components of literacy class?"

Some wrote volumes. Others did not even write the question. A challenging year lay ahead.

More than 186,000 students returned to school on Tuesday in Hillsborough County — from preschoolers toddling to class, to high schoolers driving. The student head count was 2,863 more than the first day of 2012-13, and on track to exceed 200,000.

The mood was celebratory as superintendent MaryEllen Elia made her early morning rounds, tweeting words of encouragement everywhere she went.

District officials reported no problems, and said that with the rebounding of the economy and the housing sector, enrollment could reach new heights.

But teachers are under pressure with the state's transition to the more rigorous Common Core State Standards.

And stakes are especially high at four schools that got F grades this year from the state, including the one where Coleman teaches: Booker T. Washington Elementary near Ybor City.

"We're in the trenches," said Anthony Montoto, the school's new principal. News of the grade was "devastating," he said.

But he said the mind-set at the school, which already keeps students until 5 p.m., is to dig in, recruit teachers where needed and keep expectations high.

"We can look at all the data from the FCAT. But it comes down to zero and 100," Montoto said. "Zero excuses. And 100 percent will see learning gains."

At Washington, nearly every student qualifies for free lunch. More than 90 percent are at least two years below grade level, Montoto said. And some move frequently.

Latisha Cooper's two sons, both in first grade, spent much of last year at Reddick Elementary School when the family lived with her mother in Wimauma.

Since the move, she said, "they haven't been progressing like they were at Reddick." She hopes things improve at Washington, but said she has applications in at several magnet schools.

Jesus Hernandez, 6, is repeating kindergarten largely because his English is lacking, his mother said. He began the day coloring a worksheet labeled, "Welcome to Kindergarten." Soft music played as teacher Felecia Bryant praised his work: "Like college students."

As Common Core requires students to delve more deeply into topics, teachers will be challenged. "It is a lot of stress," said Jennifer Begley, a reading resource teacher. "But we're going to hit the ground running."

In the district's International Baccalaureate programs, the transition should be easier because teaching methods resemble those recommended for Common Core.

"We will produce individuals who are responsible for their education," said Diana Favata, lead teacher at Riverhills Elementary School, which reopened as an all-IB school. "High-level thinking is an expectation here."

Three-hundred children are enrolled so far, she said.

The mood also was upbeat at Leto High School, which has attempted several strategies in recent years to boost academics. Forty students are signed up for a new collegiate academy that could allow them to graduate with two years of college.

The cafeteria was remodeled over the summer. And enrollment is up. "We will reach 1,700," principal Victor Fernandez said.

At 4:30 p.m., back at Washington, children took a break on the playground, oblivious to the searing heat. Montoto sat with assistant principal Jamie Whitlow, contemplating activities they will offer in the afternoon hours.

They want to fuse culture and recreation with academics. There might be counseling sessions and single-gender classes in health and etiquette.

While the pressure to raise the grade is real, Montoto said he wants a lot more for his students. "I want to see them grow as human beings," he said. "I want to see compassion. I want to see them care. I want to see them take value in education and take value in life."

There were a few hiccups, a rude parent or two. But all things considered, "it was a really wonderful day."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or