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  1. The Education Gradebook

Teachers on a mission vie for jobs at Hillsborough's poorest schools, those called Renaissance schools

TAMPA — Jacquelyn Simons had to be on the road at dawn to get from Lakeland to a hiring fair at Jefferson High School.

But, hey, she's 23 and knows what she wants: to be a teacher at one of Hillsborough County's poorest schools.

"I know that this is something my heart is in," she said. "I just know that students need good role models and I believe I can provide that for them."

Throughout the high school in Tampa's West Shore district, men and women — mostly women — marched through the halls on Tuesday wearing their finest professional clothes and their most practiced smiles, all for the privilege of doing work many can barely imagine.

Numbering more than 430, they interviewed for jobs at so-called Renaissance schools in the Hillsborough County district.

Don't let the French name fool you: These are schools where nearly everyone lives below the poverty line.

"There will be days when it's evident that a child spent the night in a car, or at an aunt's house, or that there was no food and no support at home," said Daphne Fourqurean, assistant principal of Mort Elementary School, which serves the university area in North Tampa.

"And it may be that the parents are doing all they can.''

The recession — and an explosion in food stamp use — has dramatically increased the number of public schools that are labeled "Title I," meaning they get extra funds from the federal government.

The Renaissance designation is more extreme. In 2008 the district had 22 Renaissance schools, defined as those where at least 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.

Now there are 43.

Working at Renaissance schools can mean a 2 to 5 percent increase in teacher pay. But the challenges are many, especially in an era when test scores are paramount.

"They might come into your sixth-grade class working on a third-grade level," said job candidate Kiffani Jones, 26. "And you can move them ahead. But can I work a miracle? That's a lot of pressure, and the tests measure grade level."

As they moved through their interviews, with each school assigned to a different classroom, the teachers were asked about their approach to reading instruction. They were asked about their discipline plans.

Seventy-six were hired Tuesday, and more will be hired throughout the summer.

They expressed a sense of mission. "I love working with kids who struggle and don't have much," said Sabrina Lester, 24, who wants to teach homeless children at Metropolitan Ministries.

Some of the applicants, such as Simons, were fresh out of college.

But most had at least a few years of experience, and seasoned teachers said that was probably for the best.

"You've got to have your game on all the time," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

"You have to have eyes in the back of your head. You have to be able to juggle 20 things at once. Not many beginning teachers are ready for this, but some are."

Much of what the interviewers looked for would be hard to state on a resume.

"It's about caring," said Fourqurean, the assistant principal.

"Anyone can learn to be a teacher, but you can't teach someone to care."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356.

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