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Pasco School Board votes to close Hudson Elementary

The school had earned just one state grade above D in the past nine years.
Dozens of Hudson Elementary parents attend an evening town hall session with Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning on Jan. 13, 2020, to learn about a proposal to close their children's school. [Courtesy of Michelle Brandon]
Dozens of Hudson Elementary parents attend an evening town hall session with Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning on Jan. 13, 2020, to learn about a proposal to close their children's school. [Courtesy of Michelle Brandon]

Almost a year after refusing to close it, the Pasco County School Board unanimously voted Tuesday to shut down Hudson Elementary School.

The three board members who rejected the idea in 2019 said that this time the district administration had devised a more comprehensive and acceptable plan to improve academic outcomes for the school’s 526 students.

Hudson, which serves one of the poorest communities in the county, has long appeared on federal and state watch lists for poor test results. It received only one state grade above a D in the past nine years, and before that regularly failed to meet federal progress measures.

Without improvement, it faced a state-mandated turnaround plan with limited district involvement.

That possibility fed the decision.

“I do see the urgency for change,” said board member Megan Harding, who opposed the idea previously.

The administration’s revised concept helped convince the board.

“I feel very confident that folks here in the district have really understood the needs” in crafting a new plan, said board member Alison Crumbley, who also did not back the plan before.

She called the decision to close a school “melancholy,” but said she believed the change would provide education equity for the community.

“I think you are going to see some really wonderful things come out of this,” Crumbley said.

Next fall, most Hudson Elementary students are expected to attend C-rated Northwest Elementary, about five miles away on the campus of Hudson Middle and High schools.

To accommodate the influx, the K-12 campus would get a construction overhaul. To meet higher academic expectations, it would adopt the rigorous Cambridge instructional model and add several social services for family and community use.

The remaining students likely would be reassigned to Gulf Highlands Elementary School, which has improved to a steady C grade after receiving F’s in 2011 and 2014. Gulf Highlands is at about 83 percent of its capacity.

“First and foremost, this superintendent and this School Board want the best for the children at Hudson Elementary School,” superintendent Kurt Browning said. “We are wanting our students to be set up for success. And we believe they will.”

RELATED: Pasco plans $250 million schools improvement project

Board members stressed they did not relish closing a neighborhood school. Yet they did not want to leave the school’s fate in the hands of outsiders.

The school appeared on track to get another D grade, according to district data. That would have triggered state-mandated changes, such as bringing in an outside vendor to run the operations.

This local action ends that possibility.

"You can say school grades are very arbitrary. I agree,” board member Cynthia Armstrong said. “But the state takes the grade seriously, and there are serious consequences when we don’t meet the targets. ... We need to keep control of our schools, not the state.”

The state’s rules, and the shrinking time frame in which struggling schools must meet those demands, in many ways forced the board’s hand. Members had tried other avenues before, including several leadership changes, teacher replacements and program shifts.

Morale and community support increased, but not academic performance.

RELATED: ‘A new, fresh start’: Struggling Hudson Elementary starts the year with plans for a turnaround

Educators came in raring to make a difference, but many didn’t last even a year. Burnout and turnover was high -- including among families.

This year alone, enrollment shrunk by about 70 in the first semester.

More than half of the current teachers were not on staff on the first day of classes. And among the handful that held over from the year before, several were forced out by state rules regarding student test score data.

RELATED: Four teachers removed from struggling Hudson Elementary School over test results

The upshot for many families and staff who remained was a lack of trust. The school promised big things, but didn’t deliver where it counted.

That sentiment came through clearly to board members who attended a town hall meeting in the school Monday evening.

About 100 parents and staff members gathered in the media center to hear district administrators explain their objectives in closing Hudson and creating a fresh start.

After listening for nearly a half hour, their disappointment and frustration surfaced in questions and comments that lasted beyond the scheduled session. Some officials stayed late to make sure they heard all the concerns.

“They were angry, but I think they understand,” Harding said. “The Hudson community cares. They definitely care.”

A handful of the parents and staff showed up again on Tuesday for the board vote.

Rob and Sabrina Ward, who have three children at Hudson, said they want to remain positive about the change for the sake of their kids.

At the same time, they had deep concerns about the district plan -- especially the transition to the next schools. They worried, for example, about how placing large numbers of students in portables will work.

“There’s a lot of vague things that haven’t been explained,” Rob Ward said. “How are my children going to get the best education in that environment?”

Questions about the transition prompted one parent to call for a negative vote, so the community can become more involved in the process. Another suggested that parents from Northwest Elementary and Hudson Middle also need to be included.

Browning said he did not want to present a transition plan ahead of the board vote. He expected one to come out soon. The board said that effort will be key, with chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin urging the district to consider special interventions and staffing to ensure a smooth changeover.

She and others also supported the idea of keeping all Hudson and Northwest students at the Hudson campus while Northwest is rebuilt, rather than creating a portable city.

Browning said his team will look closely at that possibility.

Teacher Buster Grib recommended that idea. He said it is important to ensure that the children, many of whom live with trauma and family crisis, get the services they deserve.

“I’m in support of this new program if it gets the children what they need,” Grib said.

Next up, the district will design new attendance zones for the children assigned to Hudson Elementary. The board is slated to vote on the proposal that emerges in April.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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