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Back to school in Hillsborough’s Achievement group

Smiles and mascots provide a gentle re-entry before the hard work begins

TAMPA —Amir Williams is four and can recite the whole alphabet.

He can be hyper, his mother, Elacia Johnson said as she and Amir’s father walked him into Sheehy Elementary School for the first day of preschool. But “he is sweet and he gets along with everybody.”

Johnson was eager to see a learning plan for Amir. “I’ve heard this is a pretty good school,” she said. She had heard Sheehy had an "A" rating.

Principal Delia Gadson was waiting, along with a full office staff, a lion mascot and teachers posted outside the doors, hugging every child they recognized from the previous year.

Everyone except the lion, from the principal to a full-time volunteer they all called Grandma, wore black t-shirts with a comfortable V-neck fit, the Lion logo and the words, "Strong hearts, fierce minds."

The school, technically, has a “C.” But if you believe the marquee, it is “on the way to A-Town Road.”

More than 200,000 Hillsborough students returned Monday as the district faced a host of uncertainties for the 2019-20 year. Would reading skills improve? Would new security measures make people feel safer? What would Richard Corcoran, the state’s education secretary, say at his 10:45 a.m. appearance at Broward Elementary? Would everyone get home safely at the end of the day?

At Sheehy, Russell Stanley, Jr. was getting the royal treatment. Hugs at every turn. Smiles everywhere, as he devoured an egg sandwich in the cafeteria and then climbed the stairs to Emili Colon’s fourth grade classroom.

His mother, Earlishia Oates, moved him a year ago from James Elementary, two miles south, where things weren’t going so well. Here at Sheehy, she said, “he knows everybody, even the new teachers.”

Russell was still smiling when he took his seat and started his bell work, a packet of get-to-know-you forms and a character word search. “The first week’s homework is mostly for the parents,” Colon said.

The district considers Sheehy a success story among its 50 “Achievement” schools, which are getting added resources to cure a history of low test scores and grades.

Where Sheehy used to have a state-ordered outside operator, it improved enough last year to graduate from that status.

The school is fully staffed at a time when the nation is battling a teacher shortage and some schools open with vacancies. Colon, who moved over from another school, is one of only three who are new, attracted in part by a bonus now paid to Achievement teachers.

Sheehy has a PTA, although a very small one. Oates is president. She hopes to attract more members by holding meetings in a nearby park where many of the kids go after school.

A science resource teacher who used to teach robotics after school was promoted this year to a district-wide coaching position. But she will be stationed at Sheehy; and, she said, her replacement is great at her job.

Principal Delia Gadson said her goal this year is “for every child to feel connected to the school, and loved.”

Colon had similar thoughts.

“I hope to build a strong community in the class,” she said, “And to get as many people involved in learning as possible.”

Gadson described a gentle re-entry for the first day. She planned to visit each class and introduce herself. The faculty took training in something called “Foundations,” and would focus primarily on making sure everyone understood what was expected of them.

The prevailing wisdom is that nothing good can happen at a school without those routines and expectations.

At Sheehy, the challenge is to maintain the "C" or improve upon it, which can be tricky under the state formula. Reading skills, a priority for the district, improved slightly last year. But with more than two-thirds of students still testing below grade level, hard work remains.

On social media, there were images of schools taking extraordinary steps to open with high morale.

James Elementary literally rolled out a red carpet. The school weathered chronic teacher vacancies last year and the spring reading scores were among the lowest in the state

This year, principal Robin Johnson Hewitt said in a video released by the district, the theme is “transformers.” She wants that idea to be part of all interactions with students, staff and parents. Every conversation “will be transitional. It will be intentional,” she said.

At Broward, the visit from Corcoran was not an announcement, but a chance to read to second grade children.

Corcoran teamed up with Florida Teacher of the Year Dakeyan “Dre” Graham for an interactive reading of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. When it was over, each child received another Dr. Seuss volume, Hop on Pop.

After a breakneck tour of schools, district leaders added up the first-day numbers. Attendance, at 204,424, was 8.5 percent higher than last year’s, although the fact that school began on a Friday in 2018 might have accounted for some of the difference.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said that when the 20-day count is taken, he expects a net gain of 15,000. Charter schools, which are operated independently, now serve 13 percent of Hillsborough’s public school students.

There were air conditioning issues, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said, adding, “most issues were fixed.” There were bus delays - "traffic issues and in some cases bus driver vacancy.”

Back at Sheehy, Gadson said things went smoothly. “Dismissal was a little slow, but that’s typical on the first day, especially in the rain,” she said. “The day went very fast.”

Earlishia Oates picked Russell up from the after-school program at the park at 4:30. She asked him about his day.

“He said it was good,” she said. “He really enjoyed it.”