1. Opinion

Column: Potter Elementary on pathway to success

Published Mar. 20, 2017

In our schools, we teach our students about the importance of telling the entire story. Recent coverage in the Tampa Bay Times regarding Potter Elementary in Tampa clearly omitted key facts and actions that are being taken to put this school on a pathway to sustainable success. I would like to take this opportunity to fill in the gaps.

Sustainable school turnaround is extremely difficult work and involves our entire district. It requires a sense of urgency, ownership of the solutions and long-term commitment. The principal of Potter, Melanie Hill, owns these solutions and continues to work closely with the area superintendent and district staff for sustainable reform.

Only 10 months ago, I did something never done before at an elementary school in our district. I asked community members to participate in the principal selection process at Potter. Parents and community members must have a seat at the table and involve themselves in this important work. In addition to appointing Hill, I placed a veteran principal coach at Potter to mentor, support operations and provide various managerial support. This high level of community engagement along with our district's extensive Principal Pipeline program supports lasting reform.

Students are indeed learning at Potter Elementary. The Times even described students as "attentive and engaged" during the reporter's visit to Potter. Unfortunately, the depiction of engaging, well-managed classrooms was overshadowed by stories from teachers who no longer work at the school. Teachers at Potter have been through extensive and ongoing training related to classroom management and instruction. There have been supports in place that have helped to shift the culture. Again, it takes time, and what you see now as you visit classrooms is only the beginning of these improved results.

To build a sustainable model, the principal must find effective teachers who intrinsically want to work at Potter Elementary. This goes way beyond simply filling a teaching vacancy. Long-term success means building district-wide structures like our Pathways program to identify, train and deploy our most effective teachers to our Elevate schools. Over time, programs like Elevate and Pathways will serve as a national model to systemically address student performance and teacher retention rates at our highest-need schools.

Sustainability also requires our district to build capacity. National research about student mobility rates closely mirrors the challenges we face in Hillsborough County. For instance, during the 2014 school year only 10 fifth-grade students had attended Potter since kindergarten. Clearly, our district needed to broaden reform efforts and create comprehensive strategies to improve student performance regardless of where they attend. Thus, in 2016, I reinterviewed area superintendents through a lens of school reform, student performance and community outreach. This districtwide approach addresses student mobility research and ensures sustainable improvements at every school.

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Another component of sustainability involves marshalling the right resources to support change. Since day one, Hill utilized a wide array of district personnel at Potter, including a behavior specialist who supported the development of a schoolwide discipline plan. Amid a national teaching shortage, she continues to partner with our human resources division to capitalize on recruiting veteran, high-performing teacher leaders.

The positive results that the Times touched on deserved greater recognition in the article. Those who take the time to visit the school observe the same conditions: dedicated and effective teachers, engaged students and a community that supports sustainable reform. As the principal retains a large cadre of strong teachers for the 2017-18 school year, she plans to begin a Teacher Leader Academy in partnership with the University of South Florida. This will support a culture of teacher leadership and ownership that will help keep Potter moving in the right direction. She also plans to bring back her staff early to be ready to hit the ground running so that all systems of support are in place for teachers and students on day one of the new school year.

Jeff Eakins is superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools.