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Meet the candidates for Hillsborough School Board District 7

Lynn Gray faces three challengers as she vies for a second term on the board.

This is the final installment in our School Board candidate series. Also read profiles on District 1, District 3 and District 5.

District 7 is a countywide seat on the Hillsborough County School Board. Lynn Gray, a former educator and running coach, won that seat in 2016 and is trying for a second term. Her opponents are former School Board member Sally Harris; Jeffrey Johnson, a pastor and United Way executive; and Angela Schroden, an education professor and literary consultant.

Lynn Gray, 68

Lynn Gray [ Courtesy of the Lynn Gray campaign ]

Occupation: Former teacher, running coach

Education: Bachelor’s in social studies education, University of South Florida; master’s in education, Nova Southeastern University.

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

First pressing issue — COVID-19. Follow CDC guidelines. We have yet to meet the first step criteria. Provide child care for our families via full service centers. Masks should be worn throughout the day when person-to-person proximity exists. Increase measures to clean and disinfect public areas and classrooms. Temperature checks daily for students before getting on bus or into the schools, providing masks daily for each student and family visitor. Families sign a document, approved by our legal team, to not hold HCPS liable if child/staff/teacher gets sick. Extend day of school such as we did in double sessions so as to reduce the number of students per class, common areas and lunches. All schools have covered courts, thus have PE teachers teach predominantly outside.

[UPDATE: Gray later changed her position on the issue of liability waivers. On July 7, she issued this statement:

“As a School Board Member, I strive always to represent the best interests of the students, teachers and other stakeholders. As we all navigate the Covid crisis, we have had to be flexible as the situation evolves on a sometimes daily basis. As the Superintendent develops and revises the School re-opening plan, I have been vigilant in providing the appropriate amount of my input my role requires, including concerns about fiscal responsibility and liability. As the situation has evolved and after receiving input from staff, stakeholders, and our attorneys, I understand that the District will not be requiring parents to sign waivers before allowing students to return to our schools, and I support that decision.”]

Second pressing issue — Matching our instructional supports and resources with the needs of our students to address racial unrest and student growth from our Spanish-speaking communities. Solutions: Increasing African American studies in elementary, middle, and high schools, plus making courses not only integrated with more rich and relevant history/current events but making sure all grade levels are infusing African American history into their classes versus just during “Black History Month,” or those brief mini paragraphs found in written text. Put in place additional Hispanic translators, Hispanic leadership and staff, and enhancing curriculum with Hispanic cultural history and relevant histories. I currently work with our new chief of diversity, Hispanic staff and Hispanic community leaders to help facilitate this goal.

Third pressing issue — Increase funding for our public schools by restoring our total millage rates from 2007 and increasing impact fees (just did) to further our restoration of schools and their infrastructure. Renew our referendum. Next time, half should go to our capital needs and the other half toward our salaries.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

Increase funding for VPK and our pre-K education programs. Put them all under Hillsborough County Public School District with the needed oversight and accountability. Standardize the VPK/pre-K curriculum to include a rich program of phonics along with literacy and numeracy. Yes, additional money would be needed by the state to work side by side with this VPK/pre-K goal. Our legislative committee and our two lobbying firms would prepare language to address this with our Florida delegation.

Have district VPK teachers and preschool teachers become certified in pre-K education. VPK and pre-K teachers and paraprofessionals would receive a level of pay commensurate with standard of living and would receive a benefit package.

How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

Pre-K phonics plus literacy-rich curriculum. Additional paraprofessionals should work at a ratio of 1 per 3-4 students, especially with the Hispanic and high-needs populations. Invite community leaders to come into our classrooms to also assist in a more one-on-one reading tutorial role. Continue community outreach via our Family Opportunity Centers in high-needs areas to not only reinforce reading, but to offer social services to children and families.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

Florida Statute states “they must meet high standards of student achievement, align with accountability systems, improve student learning and academic achievement, create innovative measurement tools...” Seventeen of our 51 charter schools are C or below. Many fail on each of those mentioned criteria. Their original purpose was to serve high-needs populations and to be an innovative, exemplary and non-duplicative source of education. However, many of the newer charters are corporate business models enjoying profits from our students. This is at the cost of defunding our existing and future public schools.

They can serve those who are in high-needs areas and gain their monies via community, state and federal funding, such as grants. In turn we should have equal rights to hold their schools accountable with fiscal and academic oversight plus the various school systems and processes such as found in our public schools. Pepin Academy is a great example of how charter schools can serve our student community correctly: innovative, specific high needs population, privately owned, extremely accountable and fiscally sound.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

Restorative practices equals equity in behavior management. It is through behavior management of students in a positive sense which results in an equitable, positive school culture among ALL races and ethnic backgrounds. In each case, the same “educational best practices” are used for every child. We are reminded as educators when there is a respectful and trusting student-to-teacher relationship, academic focus then becomes a reality. (Each case I examined and went to their “certification classes” before recommending their implementation to our district. These are all data proven behavior management programs used across the nation.

Positive Behavior Incentive Support System in middle and high school. The staff and I implemented this program for schools to practice rewarding student successes in improving their conduct and overall behavior. Then entire student body, faculty, staff and leadership buy into this outreach thus full fidelity. Other innovations include the Ron Clark Academy “House” system and “The Leader in Me” – K-5th, a leadership curriculum focus done in schools to lower discipline reports and referrals.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

Yes, currently our high schools are developing more in the likeness of junior colleges, such as Hillsborough Community College. The current reality of our school district is the increasing of AP classes, IB studies, dual enrollment-college and career/technical. Currently with the removal of direct teaching due to the COVID virus, our community partners, parents, teachers and staff are getting more comfortable with “at-home” computer use versus a live teacher in each class.

What if HCPS consolidated with HCC and Plant City High School for a state of the art vocational/technical center with a building devoted to that, and one for curriculum? What if there was a track and field plus athletic center there as well? Plus mental health services within this campus?

That is what I am now looking at along with Mayor Lott, Ken Atwater and superintendent Davis, Bill McDaniel, and others.

Sally Harris, 70

Sally Harris [ Courtesy of the Sally Harris campaign ]

Occupation: Owner of a preschool center

Education: Robinson High School; studied at Hillsborough Community College and University of South Florida

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

COVID and reopening the schools, bringing up the low-performing schools, mental health, safety for our students from bullying.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

Yes it does require more resources. Lower class sizes and support teams that can help educate and meet the needs of the whole child. Teachers need the tools along with training and support. This support can come from Title I funds and there are partnerships within our community that also are willing to help.

How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

You must take a close look at what has been done and where it is working and where it is not working. We can not keep doing the same thing and expect different results. There are great programs to help teachers as aides to the classroom instruction and that students can continue to do at home. The district just purchased one of those instructional aides that has a proven track record to increase students reading.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

They are important for parents to have a CHOICE. The charter schools should be held accountable to the same standards that the district public schools are held to. If public schools are doing their job and have programs that are superior, then parents will choose public. We must keep up with community expectations. Charters do fill a need and are not going away.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

This is where we need a lot of mental health training and more trained mental health counselors in the schools. The district has been following the numbers of suspensions and discipline for two years concerning these issues. As they are aware of the differences and have begun to put in place assistance to the schools that may have higher numbers than others. The district needs to be more sensitive to their hiring methods and making sure students see leaders and administrators that are of same ethnicity. Again, when the district is meeting the needs of the whole child, you will see these issues begin to drop across the district. We need to see the district work faster to make sure these changes take place.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

I feel that a whole new balance of boundaries needs to be looked at. If there is a community that has seats in their schools, then either a boundary change needs to take place or combine schools. As the growth in this community is only increasing, we need to be ahead not caching up. These steps should have already been put in place.

Jeffery Alex James Johnson, 37

Jeffery Alex James Johnson [ Courtesy of the Jeffrey Johnson campaign ]

Occupation: Pastor; manager of neighborhood initiatives, United Way Suncoast.

Education: Bachelor’s, Warner University; master of theology, St. Thomas Christian University; master of ministry, Warner University; Ph.D. in Christian thought, St. Thomas Christian University.

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

There are more than three, but we must first address the learning, achievement and discipline gaps with our minority scholars. The solution to this is to provide in-depth training for our educators on cultural differences and to host consistent forms with our community stakeholders. We should revisit our district code of conduct for minor offenses and consider what are our restorative practices. We would also require mediation and choose the best-qualified educators to provide the remediation.

Secondly, I would continue to monitor our graduation rates as well as dropout rates. To push the district to 90 percent and beyond, the graduate rate must include intentional measures that prevent a scholar from dropping out. We would provide access to technical colleges or host vocational/technical programs on our high school campuses.

The third pressing issue is to address funding and early childhood literacy. If our goal is to produce even stronger graduation rates/decreased dropout rates through intentional outreach measures to children before they reach the kindergarten level, we must be strategic to work with Early Head Start and VPK programs to ensure literacy/phonics/comprehension models are being taught. Funding is key. Funding is needed to ensure we can support the programming and partnership to these early learning and development centers.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

We should study other school districts our size who have had similar or better success. We should also continue to hire the best and most qualified educators. Our hiring practices must include incentives for qualified educators who desire to work at our lower-performing schools. Our Transformation Schools department should be a top priority districtwide. The Transformation department personnel are the key change agents for success to turn around our lower-performing schools. We have decreased the number of lower-performing schools from 50 to below 30. This is great, but we want to make that number zero. School transformation must be a key priority. I would also seek additional public and/or private funding to help at our lower-performing schools. The Education Foundation and United Way Suncoast are two great community partners who are already supporting these efforts. Community collaboration is paramount for our scholars and their families. The majority of families in our lower-performing schools are ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained and Employed) families. ALICE families are hardworking residents who still find it hard to make ends meet. If families are working 2-3 jobs, who’s home in the afternoon to support the child? We have to be equipped to understand all problems that may hinder the child.

How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

This is a question of accountability to our school superintendent. I would hold the superintendent accountable and make sure that he produces a rubric of how higher reading scores are being achieved. I would ask for him to keep myself/the board and the public informed on the progress of our reading scores. This would detail the district level of progress through i-Ready. I would speak to current educators and ask their opinions on what they feel works and doesn’t work with our current reading curriculum. This will give me a relative insight of needs as I speak to the superintendent about real-time academic challenges from our educators. I also believe that part of his contract should be based on student performance scores. The improvement of recording scores is a process that begins before the superintendent is involved. We have to make sure that we are collaborating with early learning centers, VPK programs, and daycares by providing them with early literacy tools.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

Charter schools are valuable, and they do play an active role in our district. For far too long, there has seemingly been an unnecessary battle between the necessity of charters schools and why they are or are not needed. Charter Schools are not the enemy. Parents deserve the right to place their children in an environment that is best suitable for their child. It should be our aim to ensure that each individual child has an opportunity to thrive and succeed. Some charters provide a smaller and more intimate setting that may be more conducive to a student’s specific needs. However, while I believe that charter schools have a place in our district, they must maintain the same qualities, and we must hold them to the same standards of our traditional schools. Their educators should be certified, and they should show models on how they plan to close the achievement gaps, remain in accordance with school district accountability practices, and increase gains in their graduation rates. The ROI from charter does prove worth the public advancement. I suggest reviewing charter school pros and cons by the University of Arkansas.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

I would strongly encourage the district to actively recruit and hire more quality minority teachers and administrators to work in the inner city and lower-performing schools with a proven track record of working in turnaround schools. I do believe that students need to see themselves in their school leaders. It is a must that I address discrimination and educational biases that have existed for generations. The generational disparities of economics and education bias for Black and brown students should not be ignored. This does not discredit the racial and ethnic differences of those who are descendants of Asian and Indian ancestry. The lack of brown and Black students in comparison to other groups within advancement placement courses are alarming. I would look at those students who have high GPA averages but score poorly on SAT and ACT tests. I would also research how our district generally fairs in this aspect to other regions and to find practices that would work in our district. I would look at the rates of our students who are accepted into military schools, Ivy League universities, and state schools compared to other districts. My plan for discipline is to encourage administrators to observe the offense and measure the weight of the offense. This is done by analyzing each individual case. Many of our children are in need of mentorship and community support that would divert them from trouble. We must make proactive disciplinary measures a priority in inner-city schools. If students are more involved in extracurricular activities, it minimizes their desire for trouble.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

I would seek to examine schools that have the potential for consolidation by reviewing their current capacity rates. If schools are under capacity, it would be expedient for us to research why they are under capacity and what would be the best decision for that campus. If schools are under capacity, we can look at expanding magnet programs at those schools. We cannot close schools. Another option may be to redraw boundaries to ensure that schools are at their capacity. That process isn’t easy. Stakeholders and community input must be part of making a decision as massive as this.

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Angela Schroden, 47

Angela Schroden [ Courtesy of the Angela Schroden campaign ]

Occupation: Adjunct education professor at the University of South Florida; literary consultant

Education: Bachelors’ degrees in mass communications and special education, University of South Florida; master’s in educational leadership, Nova Southeastern University; doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies, University of South Florida ·

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

Our three most pressing issues are safety, equity and funding:

Safety during this time of COVID-19. There will be no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the challenge of keeping our students safe — locally tailored solutions will be required. The best decisions will be made by having the most accurate information, listening to the needs and concerns of parents and school district employees, and taking tailored action to address those needs utilizing what we know.

Equity: We must address the inequities that continue to plague our historically underserved and marginalized communities. In spite of focusing on this challenge for years, we still have 42 schools on the state’s lowest 300 performing schools list and 38 schools on the state’s persistently low-performing schools list. This is unacceptable. This inequity calls for a reimagining of what schooling can and should look like for communities with greater need. I would promote policies that recognize and change inequitable school and district-level practices, push for a review of all curriculum with a lens towards equity, and advocate for educator training on how to respond equitably to bias and racism.

Funding: Budget priorities MUST align with the stated goal of superintendent Davis and HCPS: “All decisions will be made with our learners in the forefront. … We will continue to build systems of care and leverage the knowledge from our practitioners that will allow students to discover endless possibilities. We will work daily to provide a quality education to every student, every day, and in every classroom.” This means that our budget priorities must reflect those line items that have the biggest return on investment toward that goal. If elected, I would seek to constantly assess how our current funds are being spent and, if necessary, push for efforts to reallocate funds and resources to align with our identified priorities.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

Clearly, what’s been done to date hasn’t fully addressed the challenges that these schools face. Fiddling at the margins of these challenges won’t solve them — this continued inequity calls for a reimagining of what schooling can and should look like for our communities with greatest need. Some examples of specific actions we should take include: recognizing and changing inequitable school and district-level practices and policies, including discipline and dress code; reviewing ALL curriculum through the lens of equity to ensure materials that marginalize students and families or omit historically silenced voices are not used; and advocating for educator training in culturally relevant teaching.

As with the first two of these examples, there is much we can do to improve the education being provided at these schools at no additional cost, because many of these solutions are focused on changing the way our educators think about and plan for what they teach. If elected to the School Board, I will push for changes in the way we approach education in these schools, lobby external sources (e.g., the state Legislature) for additional funding, and critically examine the district’s budget to identify means of reallocating resources to address this persistent and unacceptable situation.

How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

I have 20 years of experience specifically focused on literacy. I work directly with children, educators, administrators and districts across the nation to improve the literacy practices of teachers and the literacy experience of students. I can therefore say with confidence that increasing literacy achievement depends most critically on having educators who are highly knowledgeable in literacy in front of every student. Our children need a knowledgeable educator by design, not by chance. This means we have to focus on, fund and support ongoing professional development for every educator. These investments need to focus on the reading process (a combination of print and meaning) and how speaking, listening and writing are all integral elements of an effective literacy curriculum. This focus on literacy should begin with our youngest pre-K students and continue through high school, because tasks and texts become increasingly complex as students move through grade levels. We also know that the amount of time children spend reading is directly correlated to how well they score on literacy assessments. In the same way that athletes improve with practice, the more students read, the better they get at reading. If elected to the School Board, I would therefore seek to examine how much reading is happening across the school day and the access students have to quality texts that they can — and want — to read. I firmly believe that every classroom in Hillsborough County Public Schools should have an extensive, robust library so our students have quality texts available at their fingertips and I would push for resources to ensure this is the case.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

As the mother of two children in Hillsborough County Public Schools and an educator for over 20 years, I understand the variety of needs that are required to be met for each child to succeed. As the seventh-largest school district in the nation, with over 200,000 students, we must recognize the wide variety of student needs that exist across our district and act to meet those needs. It is imperative that we have programs and supports offered throughout the district that allow families to choose a school that meets the specific needs of their child. I am against further expansion of charter schools in Hillsborough County until we can align the use of charter schools strategically with the advancement of choice for our students. Continued expansion of charter schools, locally and statewide, decreases public school funding and contributes to increased segregation, which inhibits our ability to create a premier school district. Listening to families and students about their needs, identifying gaps in our offerings, and then acting to create or increase choice offerings are all necessary prerequisites to eliminating the need for charter schools. I am adamantly against the use of charter schools as a stepping stone to the full privatization of public schools.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

During the 2019-20 academic year, the ethnic and racial makeup of HCPS was 37.1 percent Hispanic/Latino, 32.9 percent white, 21.0 percent Black, 4.6 percent multiracial, 4.1 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent Native American and Pacific Islander. Despite these numbers, Black students are almost four times as likely to be suspended from our schools as white students, almost three times as likely to be removed from the classroom but kept within school, and almost three times as likely to be expelled. Additionally, we still have 42 schools on the state’s lowest 300 performing schools list and 38 schools on the state’s persistently low performing schools list. All of these schools serve a majority population of students of color. It is clear that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It is time to change our view of what these schools can be and how they operate. One specific aspect that HCPS should pursue is culturally relevant and responsive teaching, which is a serious and powerful tool for accelerating student learning. Culturally relevant teaching is a reframing of how and what we teach that includes high expectations, learning with relevancy, cultural competence, and critical questioning of injustices. If elected to the School Board, I would ask hard questions as to what is getting in the way of teaching that is culturally relevant and responsive to the students in our classrooms and I would push for changes needed to address those obstacles.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

I do not think that now is the time to consolidate campuses and facilities. First, a top priority of our school district has to be the safety of our students. Consolidating campuses and facilities — which would result in putting more people into a smaller footprint of spaces — makes no sense in the midst of a pandemic for which the Centers for Disease Control continue to recommend social distancing as a primary means of reducing risk of infection and spread. Second, while consolidation may seem like a purely fiscal decision, the School Board must also consider such proposals based on how they would impact the communities we serve. For example, how do they impact our ethical and moral obligation to provide all children, regardless of their social position, with adequate educational resources? We have to think about how we build a school system that works for all students.

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