High poverty rates. Trouble reading. Staff turnover. A culture of failure. There’s no single reason that Hillsborough County operates far more schools than any other district in Florida that the state deems “persistently low performing.” The causes are deep and complex, and addressing them will require more resources and a sustained commitment by the Hillsborough school district.
In an exhaustive report Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times’ Marlene Sokol explored what’s happening at Hillsborough’s worst performing schools. Hillsborough has 35 schools on the list; no other district has more than 18. Pinellas County has six; Pasco County, two. Principals, teachers and administrators interviewed by the Times pointed to a host of reasons for this lagging performance, from poverty and language barriers to disciplinary problems and punitive state testing.
Of course, many school districts in Florida, big and small, face the same problems. And as Sokol reports, Hillsborough’s dismal statistics persist despite a succession of ambitious initiatives, all intended to create a quality education for students, regardless of income or ZIP code. In the worst of these schools, 60 to 85 percent of students fall below the state’s most basic standards in reading, year after year. That’s a recipe for failing later in the upper grades, and for struggling with basic skills throughout life.
Hillsborough’s latest effort to improve — the “Transformation Network” — is the brainchild of superintendent Addison Davis, now completing his second year on the job. The district is engaging across the board to energize the classroom experience, focusing on everything from improved student attendance to data-driven methods to drive better instruction. Davis is celebrating the team’s early success; the district in 2021 had 14 D and F schools, while two years ago it had 28. But there’s a long way to go.
Better recruiting and training of principals and teachers can help stabilize the campus environment and foster stronger connections between schools and students’ families. Expanding affordable and convenient preschool options is essential; more than 16,000 students enter kindergarten every year in Hillsborough County, yet only about 4,000 go to district preschool, with the remaining 75 percent either in a commercial program or some type of day care. In Hillsborough, 48 percent of children entering kindergarten are far enough along in basic skills (slightly below the state average of 50 percent), but at the 14 D and F schools, those numbers drop as low as 17 percent.
The 14 D and F schools also have a preponderance of students described as low-income. That can lead to a range of problems, from distracted students and weak learning environments at home to little parental involvement in the schools. The district is responding with outreach programs, and with new teaching methods that put a greater emphasis on phonics in the early years, which is considered essential as students move to higher grades. And officials see improved performance as key for helping traditional schools compete with other choices, such as charter schools, which are siphoning large numbers of students away from struggling campuses.
This attention to detail across the board is vital for making progress. Davis said he believes the district has made advancements in a number of areas, from recruiting and teacher training to improving relationships with parents and communities. He acknowledges “the silver bullet doesn’t exist.” These students deserve better; so do Hillsborough taxpayers. Only a continuing commitment here will work.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.