State orders new operator for four Hillsborough schools

Oak Park and Foster Elementary can remain with Phalen Leadership Academies, the current operator.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran [CHRIS URSO  | Times]
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published July 17, 2019|Updated July 17, 2019

Four of the eight Hillsborough County public schools that had been placed under outside management will have to change operators, the State Board of Education told the district on Wednesday.

Meeting in Lakeland, the state board reviewed improvement plans for schools that have logged a series of low grades, including eight in Hillsborough.

Two — Oak Park and Foster elementary schools — already are under the supervision of Phalen Leadership Academies, a choice school group from Indiana. A third that entered that arrangement last year, Sheehy Elementary, improved its grade to a C and no longer needs outside supervision.

But six more — Kimbell, Folsom, McDonald, Robles and James elementary schools, and Sulphur Springs K-8 — are in the external operator situation because of this year’s D or F grades.

Folsom and McDonald are close enough to a C that they can work under Phalen, education commissioner Richard Corcoran and the board agreed.

But, based on the considerable work that remains at the other four, Corcoran said, “there is a concern that they do not have the capacity” to get the desired results.

Therefore, he said, he wants the district to work with the state to find another operator and bring a new plan back to the State Board.

Going with an operator was one of three options the district had last year for the three schools. The other options were to close the schools or convert them to charters.

Hiring an outside operator, which costs about $1 million over the course of the year, was the most expensive of the three options. But in determining which operator to choose, cost was a minor consideration, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.

While there are numerous ways to judge improvement or a lack of improvement, reading levels — based on the state’s yearly English language arts exam — have barely improved, if at all, at Oak Park and Foster.

At Foster, 18 percent of students passed the exam and 57 percent were in the lowest level, known as Level 1. That second number is 18 points higher than in 2018, meaning a far greater percentage of students are poor readers.

At Oak Park, 22 percent passed and 48.5 percent were at Level 1, a slight deterioration from 2018.

At Sheehy, 30 percent passed and 35 percent were at Level 1, both numbers showing improvement.

Tricia McManus, the assistant superintendent who oversees a school improvement initiative called “Achievement Schools,” said the relationship with Phalen has been more of a collaboration than one organization supervising the other.

“The performance of our schools, we take ownership of that as well,” she said during an interview earlier in the week. “I don’t look at Phalen as, did you improve the school? I look at it as, did we improve the school together?”

McManus said Phalen made good recommendations over the year, and contributed a sound feedback and training system for teachers who need to sharpen their skills.

But she suggested Phalen did not provide as much personnel as it should have.

"They have hired more staff to be on the ground and that I think will be helpful," she said.

"And that was something along the journey last year that they realized. They needed more folks to help."

Corcoran and the State Board did not limit their concerns over the quality of outside operators to Hillsborough County schools.

They raised similar questions, and called for the removal of certain providers, when reviewing turnaround plans for schools in Duval and Marion counties.

And they supported future agreements that include incentives based on performance so that poor outcomes require the contractors to return a portion of their payments.

Board members agreed that, while they do not want to force districts to accept specific operators, they want to ensure the ones available are effective.

“We want to make sure the choices they are choosing from are high-quality,” added K-12 chancellor Jacob Oliva.

Corcoran also commended Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins, who will retire next June and who “inherited, I’ll say it, a mess” when he took the job in 2015. “You’been a terrific superintendent,” Corcoran said. "We’ll miss you, and hopefully you’ll close out with a great year.”