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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Time for urgency in Hillsborough schools reforms

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins seems to have finally settled on a strategy on the district’s worst-performing schools, but it will take vision, civic involvement and follow-through for reforms to work.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins seems to have finally settled on a strategy on the district’s worst-performing schools, but it will take vision, civic involvement and follow-through for reforms to work.
Published Aug. 9, 2016

The Hillsborough County School District's response to its worst-performing schools has been underwhelming, and with schools opening this week it's time for the district to lay out a blueprint and high expectations for turning these schools around. Superintendent Jeff Eakins seems to have finally settled on a strategy, but it will take vision, civic involvement and follow-through for reforms to work.

Eakins underscored during a news conference last weekthat he has not wavered from his goals since announcing a new approach for addressing some of the county's lowest-performing schools. Initially, Eakins planned to appoint a high-ranking deputy to specifically oversee services to the so-called "Elevate" schools. But now those schools will fall under the purview of local area superintendents. The idea is to make the decisionmaking more nimble, and to attack struggling school environments by making the entire district stronger.

That approach could easily become muddled, however, as officials balance where and how to use their resources. While the seven elementary and middle schools targeted by the Elevate program will get extra support for staff and training, not having a point person to oversee their progress could result in group-think and loss of urgency. These schools need a champion and someone to hold accountable. Tying the pay and promotions of principals to school performance would be a start. Another is to better maintain these struggling schools to foster a sense of pride. But there needs to be a new spirit of excellence throughout the entire chain of command.

Nonprofits, the private sector and local government agencies have a bigger role to play. Many of the problems in these schools, which are mostly in east Tampa and Sulphur Springs, stem from poverty and unhealthy or unsafe living conditions. The city of Tampa has come through with an expanded parks program, but there still is a need for after-care, mentoring and other services, improved transportation options for families and extracurricular activities that round out the childhood experience. Schools alone cannot do the job, and the community benefits by having a thriving public school system.

Hillsborough voters also have a responsibility, with four seats on the seven-person School Board up for election this year. In the race for District 5, which covers central Tampa, where many of the low-performing schools are located, the successor to retiring board member Doretha Edgecomb will play a pivotal role in whether the Elevate initiative succeeds. The next District 5 board member must be able to build a coalition to keep Elevate alive, on track and in the public eye. In District 7, the next countywide board member must be committed to maintaining equity in a unitary school system. There are clear choices in both of these races. Voters must do their homework.

Finally, Elevate cannot be a drawn-out experience. Children are being left behind now, and every year the district waits to get it right, another age group is lost. Now that he's spent the past year reorganizing the hierarchy, it's time Eakins put the reforms into action. The School Board needs to hold him to the results and change course if need be. Children should not be put at a disadvantage because of where they live or their family status. The district, the community and voters all have a contribution to make, and a heady stake in the outcome.