TAMPA — Responding to reports of staff misconduct at Spoto High, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins said Friday he expects campus leaders to conduct themselves with integrity, and in students’ best interest.
He defended the school district’s response to problems last year at Spoto, where a principal was accused of directing her assistants to falsify withdrawal records to pad the graduation rates and urging students with learning challenges to move to alternative schools.
In his interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Eakins explained why five weeks passed between the time the Office of Professional Standards received seven complaints about Spoto principal Glennis Perez, and when they began the investigation.
In any such matter, Eakins said, the district begins with an “administrative” inquiry to assess whether the subject crossed ethical boundaries. “Many times we get things, we are hearing them and we have to find out whether or not they are actually crossing that particular line,” he said. “It might be more of a misunderstanding and something that was corrected.”
In this case, he said, the evidence was strong enough to begin the formal investigation on Feb. 11. At that point, Perez was transferred out of the school so employees would feel more comfortable being interviewed. “Now the individuals can be interviewed privately, and feel some level of trust in that interview and more information is able to come out,” he said.
Eakins said he is satisfied with the way Yinka Alege, Perez’s supervisor in the Achievement Schools group, handled the situation. Beginning in October, when teachers said there were cultural issues at the school, Alege worked with Perez to try and resolve them. Later, Alege acted appropriately as the investigation continued, Eakins said.
Perez resigned from the district, having served temporarily in a job downtown, on June 24. The district forwarded the full investigative file to the Florida Department of Education’s professional practices services division, which is the investigative arm of the DOE, on June 27, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.
When asked if there might be a problem beyond Spoto, Eakins said he does not think schools are chasing away struggling students to improve their graduation rates. Districtwide, he noted, the number of standard diplomas is growing by thousands each year, and that would not be happening if schools were not doing right by their students.
He said it is important to understand that alternative settings are sometimes better for students who have children of their own, or need to work to support family members.
“Fortunately here in Hillsborough, we have lots of different options,” he said. “We don’t force anybody. We just let people know what their options are. That is something we have done for years, having conversations with certain students, especially with those barriers. If, at end of a conversation, the family or student says they absolutely want to stay, they should. But they have to really make sure the child is aware of those options.”
Ultimately, he said, all students affect the district’s graduation rate. “The message is very clear,” he said. “Give the students options that might meet their needs. But ultimately it’s about setting them up for success.”
On the issue of staff falsifying computer codes when students withdraw from school, Eakins said the district requires documentation when a school reports that a student is in school in another state, or in a virtual school. Those rules have been tightened in the last two or three years, he said.
He said he meets with assistant principals every year at their training and this year will remind them: “We’re going to do it the right way. I will be reiterating that. And, as this certain issue has occurred, it has allowed them to be reminded that this superintendent takes these things very, very seriously.”
As he did in his emailed statement on Wednesday, Eakins commended those employees who came forward to the union and area administration when they saw things at Spoto that did not seem right,.
“In my opinion, I actually think that the fact that this bubbled up means my staff at my schools know that it was not correct,” he said. “This staff knows right from wrong and it’s clear across this entire district that this superintendent is only going to have leaders that have ethics and a high level of integrity.”
Eakins also expressed his confidence in Jazrick Haggins, the former Chamberlain High assistant principal who was chosen to replace Perez at Spoto.
“Dr. Haggins has done an incredible job over at Chamberlain,” he said. “He has been high quality in whatever role he has had. He’s got a good handle on some of the challenges he’s going to face.”