These seven Hillsborough schools will be superintendent Jeff Eakins' top priority

Published Feb. 13, 2016

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials identified seven schools Friday in great need of assistance — a group they are calling their "priority schools."

Edison, Miles, Potter and Booker T. Washington elementary schools; McLane and Sligh Middle schools; and Sulphur Springs K-8 School will undergo a systematic approach that seeks to identify and eliminate barriers to learning; attract top teachers; and offer attractive programs intended to make the schools more desirable.

The most obvious barrier: Poverty. Of 4,468 students served by the schools, 96 percent qualify for free lunch, compared with 59 percent districtwide.

The schools, with the exception of McLane in Brandon, are clustered in inner-city, largely black neighborhoods. Many of McLane's students are bused in from East Tampa, an arrangement that dates back to the district's transition from court-ordered desegregation in 2004.

The others are almost entirely minority. Potter, in East Tamp's Jackson Heights, is 89 percent black and 2 percent white. Edison, also in East Tampa, is 78 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white.

Owen Young, credited with improving East Tampa's Middleton High School when he was principal, will be area superintendent of the seven schools.

In creating the priority program, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins and the School Board are acknowledging they must improve low-performing elementary and middle schools if they want to boost high school graduation rates above the district average of 76 percent.

It is no small feat.

The state gives extra money to serve students who are disabled, or are learning English as a new language, Eakins said recently. "But it doesn't really consider poverty as something to offset."

All four elementary schools and Sulphur Springs were graded "F" by the state this year. McLane got a C and Sligh a D.

Eakins, like other superintendents has criticized the grading system because, using the new Florida Standards Assessment, it cannot measure learning gains.

But he acknowledged recently that test scores and low achievement can wear on staff. "Many of our greatest teachers come to our schools where our students need the very best, and all of a sudden they start to hit a ceiling," he said. "How do we bust through that ceiling and really achieve sustainable success?"

Visiting the seven schools in recent weeks, Eakins said: "The message was received very, very well. There was a lot of energy in the room as I was leaving every one of those meetings."

It helps, he said, that "this is about working with schools, not doing anything to schools."

The small number will allow the district to attack deep-rooted problems, such as a lack of access to quality preschool.

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Eakins wants to enlist outside organizations, to leverage scarce dollars and give communities a sense of ownership. And he wants to address a perennial challenge in the high-needs schools: How to attract top teachers.

"I believe the work will actually resolve that issue," he said. "We have so many teachers across the district who ultimately want to do the work that creates the greatest sense of fulfillment. This can build energy not only in a school, but in your teaching peers.

"It's about doing something really meaningful for not only the kids and the community, but for your career."

It is too early to calculate the cost of this project. Much of the money will come from federal anti-poverty grants, Eakins said.

Young and his small staff have spent much of this year studying successful reform efforts outside Hillsborough. They considered Charlotte-Mecklinburg in North Carolina; and Tangelo Park in Orange County, where hotelier Harris Rosen has donated millions for preschool and college scholarships.

As the Hillsborough schools show sustainable success, Eakins said, they will be taken out of the group and replaced by others. It is not yet known how many will change principals.

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