TAMPA, Fla. (WTSP) – “As long as Hillsborough County allows our schools to be broken, our children will continue to suffer.”
That was the overarching message more than 100 people in East Tampa sent to Superintendent Jeff Eakins Monday night at the Adult and Career Services Center as they listened to why seven schools, mostly in their area, are at risk of being taken over by consultants.
“It’s a problem I’ve seen for generations. We have to have equity, and we still don’t have equity,” said Orlando Gutes, a former Tampa Police Department officer who’s been consistently active in his community.
Like most others in the room, there was shock and dismay over news that seven schools with D and F rankings from the state faced closure, charter conversion or consultant takeover.
District officials learned in mid-October that if the seven schools currently in turnaround status did not improve to at least a C by the end of this school year, they would have to choose one of the options mentioned above.
Superintendent Eakins made it clear at the end of October that no schools would be closing, and said the district would choose an outside consultant by January as a backup plan in case the schools do not improve.
None of this news went over well with the audience, which was full of parents, former school officials, businessmen and women, politicians and people who simply care about children.
“I don’t know how much is actually going to change,” said Tina Young, who oversees Project LINK, a community-based organization dedicated to advocating for low-income children and families in Hillsborough County. “Some people had no clue any of this was happening with the schools.”
For some, it was a slap in the face to the community. Young said she feels there is a lack of transparency among district leaders and that the community should have learned about this problem at the same time as the district.
But Superintendent Eakins said transparency was the purpose of the meeting. “We have to have more of these conversations and we have to talk and get things out and off our chest and talk through some of the challenges,” he said. “One of the things I know we’ll do along the way is we’ll keep the community involved in this, they’ll be involved in any kinds of RFP committee we have to perhaps select that external operator. We want their input because we know it’s vital that we come back to an audience like this and say their voice was heard.”
Young remains skeptical. “I wouldn’t doubt if they already know who they want to be the external operator,” she said.
The doubt Young and others feel comes from a long history of broken educational promises to this community, which mostly comprises low-income students of color. While the problems precede Eakins’ time in office, he said he understands the frustration.
“Sometimes there’s skepticism out there because when you haven’t experienced success for a number of years, you’re going to say, ‘when is this going to change?’ said Eakins. “At the end of the day, I think you have to look at the track record over the last couple of years of how we’ve gone into similar schools, we’ve made changes in leadership in some of those schools, we’ve improved the quality of instruction in those classrooms, and we’ve gotten results.”
Currently, three schools in Hillsborough County have an F rating from the state, the lowest in district history. District leaders, parents and the community agree that is three too many.
Board member Tamara Shamburger promised to do all she could to make improvements, but urged the community to not let the schools’ fate rest solely in the districts hands. “The partnership with this district and this community, they go hand-in-hand,” she said.
District leaders say the urgency behind the community meetings and leadership decisions is because the state has shortened the amount of time they have to improve their struggling schools.