TAMPA — School leaders in Hillsborough County will make a pitch Wednesday to keep three schools in the district system, with outside help.
Foster and Oak Park Elementary have spent the last year and a half under the supervision of Phalen Leadership Academies, an external operator that the district hired after the state Department of Education ordered drastic steps to correct poor academic performance. The other options included closing the schools or turning them over to charters.
Thonotosassa Elementary is also in state turnaround status, after three consecutive "D" grades.
The district’s plans for the three schools will come before the state board when it meets Wednesday in Tallahassee.
The planning documents, which are attached to the state board’s agenda, include some revealing facts and statistics about all three schools, which belong to the Achievement group.
- Teacher shortages, some worse than others, were linked to low student peformance at all three schools. The district took steps in early 2019 to get more teachers into its low-achieving schools with a bonus plan.
- Thonotosassa, now in its third year as a "D" school, had low teacher morale last year, which was a likely factor in the vacancies and turnover. The climate survey revealed that only 24 percent of teachers felt there was an atmpsphere of trust and mutual respect in the school. “Disciplinary incidences increased by 59 percent over two years,” according to the report to the state.
- The district responded in March by appointing Anthony Montoto as principal. Montoto was successful in raising performance at Frost Elementary from a "D" to a “B,” and maintaining the "B" for a second year. .
- At Oak Park Elementary, the student population is very transient. Only about a third of the students - 37 percent - started and finished the last school year at Oak Park. The school also has a lot of students from distressed families, as it is in close proximity to two domestic violence shelters, three extended stay motels and the county’s largest drug rehabilitation facility, DACCO.
- Ryan Moody, who took over as Oak Park’s principal in the summer of 2018, began that school year with 14 vacancies and no returning administrators. Teachers were calling in sick so often that 40 percent logged seven or more absences during the year. About 70 percent of students had daily attendance under 90 percent. And, the report continues, “there were no structures in place to manage and respond to behavior.” The trend data was severe. Between 2016-17 and 2017-18, the school grade dropped by 80 points.
- The Oak Park report goes on to list strategies that have been implemeted since Moody’s arrival. These include making sure teachers have “thought partners,” the creation of staff committees, a drumline for students, a mentoring program for female students and school-wide recess first thing in the morning to cut down on loss of instructional time for students who arrive late. Grades 3 to 5 are on one-on-one computer devices, and the entire school uses an approach called “Drop Everything And Read” to promote reading.
- At Foster, also in its second year under an external operator, the report similarly blames teacher turnover and vacancies for some of the past problems. “The teachers also did not have a proficient knowledge of the content they were teaching,” the report says. “We are working to fix these issues as they are not excuses to what could and should be happening at Foster."
- The Foster report notes that only 27 percent of incoming kindergarten students test as ready for the curriculum. “So there is a continuous need to catch up.”
- Steps the district has taken to improve instruction at Foster include the use of a new curriculm for English Language Arts called Expeditionary Learning, which offers more complex, culturally relevant texts than other materials the schools used before.
- The district has reached out to day care centers to provide support to Foster’s future kindergarten students. The school is also taking steps to become a “community school” that will offer more resources to the children’s families.
- As for the problem of non-proficient teachers at Foster, the report says several were “coached to leave... because they were not a good fit for the students or the school.”