Apparent loopholes perpetuate teacher disparities in Hillsborough County's poor, minority schools

According to state law, the percentage of these teachers in D and F schools is not supposed to exceed the district average.

TAMPA, Fla. (WTSP) – For many low-income, minority parents with children in Hillsborough County Schools, it often seems like their children attend a different district than others within the same boundaries.

“It’s wrong,” said Victoria Robinson of East Tampa. Her two youngest sons will soon be heading to kindergarten, and she fears having to send them to their neighborhood school, Potter.

The school has consistently ranked as one of, if not the worst, in the district. For the last five years, Potter Elementary received a failing grade from the state, and just 18 percent of students are reading at the right level.

“What is obvious is there is a lesser quality going on in the urban core communities of education,” said Saba Baptiste, former instructor for Hillsborough County Schools and current education chair for the county’s NAACP.

“There is some type of denial going on there that caused those five years. There’s an attitude problem and there’s a mindset problem in whether or not black kids deserve high quality education,” she said.

Potter is also one of dozens of low-income, minority schools in the Hillsborough County school district ranked D or F with a disproportionate amount of teachers with temporary certifications, teaching out of their field or teachers identified as needing improvement.

State law says this shouldn’t be the case. According to a state statute focusing on the assignment of teachers to low-performing schools, districts are not supposed to allow D and F schools to exceed the district average in these three categories of teachers.

Legislators cited a disparity in teacher assignment as reason for the statute.

However, evidence from a public records request showed at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, Hillsborough County Schools did not meet these guidelines.

Of the district’s 44 schools rated D or F in 2016, 22 exceeded the district average of six percent for teachers with temporary certifications. This is a status that does not require a degree in education.

Shields Middle School in Ruskin was the biggest offender. Twenty-six percent of its teachers held temporary certifications. At the end of last school year, there were 103 teachers on-staff; 27 had temporary certifications.

“Those teachers obviously don’t have teaching backgrounds,” said Baptiste. “They are either changing careers into teaching, never taught before…and they have two to three years before they get their professional certification. They’re actually in-service teachers. They’re learning as they go.”

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said that’s not always the case. He said because of the way Florida law is structured, many successful, certified teachers who come from out-of-state are issued a temporary certificate until they can get their professional certification. The state even issued him a temporary certificate at one point.

“Even though they may come in with experience, they may be issued a temporary certificate by the state of Florida,” he said. “They’re very effective teachers. We assign them a mentor anyway to be compliant with the state statute.”

Cathy Boehme, legislative specialist for the Florida Education Association disputed the superintendent’s logic. She said most certified teachers can transfer their professional certificates through the state’s reciprocity program, and that most teachers with temporary certificates are people who do not have backgrounds in education.

“My biggest concern is that if they come into teaching and they don’t have any background in pedagogy and actually understanding how to break down a subject and sequence the information the students need to know because they are not the experts, then it’s really difficult for a new teacher to be successful,” said Boehme.

“I think we do a disservice to the new teachers who are trying to do a good job with their students, and definitely do a disservice to our students who are having to learn from someone who’s still learning how to sequence and manage the information they need to learn,” she said.

The difficulty in evenly balancing out highly-qualified teachers across the district is the statewide teacher shortage and personal preferences on where teachers want to do their job.

Hillsborough County started the school year with more than 200 unfilled teacher positions, much like many other districts across the state. Boehme said there just are not enough teachers around to do the job.

However, many say it’s still unfair that the teachers with the least experience wind up in the poor, minority schools.

“It’s wrong how they just throwing the uncertified teachers over here to teach our kids, and we’re not getting fully educated,” said Robinson.

But teachers with seniority also have a choice on where they want to teach, and the ones with the most experience often choose to leave low-performing schools for better pay.

“Even though there’s extra money for teachers that teach at those low performing schools, if you’re a new teacher, that extra money doesn’t add up,” said Baptiste. “So, you [might] have a $70,000 teacher over in New Tampa, and you have a $43,000 teacher in high-poverty schools. If you have a choice to make more money and you have a choice of where to teach, you’re going to make more money.”

Superintendent Eakins also pointed out that the district cannot and should not force teachers to work in places they don’t want to be. Eakins said it sometimes takes a special skillset to teach in high-poverty, low-performing schools, and not all teachers, even the best ones, are equipped or willing to take on the task.

Yet, the state still appears to want districts to do their best to fairly assign teachers to D and F-rated schools as outlined in the statute.

The Florida Department of Education requires superintendents each year to certify they have not exceeded the district average in the three categories of teachers outlined above. In December 2016, Superintendent Jeff Eakins signed the form, confirming Hillsborough County Schools met the guidelines.

This was despite data from a public records request that showed the district did not meet the requirements at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

When asked why Eakins signed the form, he said it was accurate when it was signed in December. However, a request for the district to supply data proving the schools were in compliance at the time the form was signed, a spokesperson said it did not have the information anymore.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said because the teacher location can change from day-to-day, it’s possible the district was in compliance in December, but not at the end of the school year.

However, there appeared to be no system in place to track data required by the law. Each time 10News asked the district to supply data from a particular point in time, a public information official said it was not readily available.

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to questions about what data is required to support the superintendent certification form. A spokesperson also said they were unable to comment on consequences for districts who do not meet the requirements of the law.

Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10News WTSP. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@wtsp.com.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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