Indianapolis charter school group could run struggling Hillsborough Co. schools

The schools at-risk of being taken over include BT Washington, Mort, Oak Park, Potter and Sheehy elementaries, plus Memorial Middle School.

Published: 6:23 PM EST February 23, 2018

Updated: 10:55 AM EST March 6, 2018

TAMPA, Fla. – A charter school group out of Indianapolis is set to take over seven of Hillsborough County’s lowest-performing schools if the schools do not improve to at least a C by the end of this academic year.

The cash-strapped district plans to sign a one-year contract with Phalen Leadership Academies for a total of $2.2 million.

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Spokesperson Tanya Arja said it would go into effect July 1 for the schools that do not improve; those that do will be removed.

Two additional one-year renewals would also be on the table, bringing the grand total to more than $6.5 million for three years.

The schools at-risk of being taken over include Booker T. Washington, Foster, Mort, Oak Park, Potter and Sheehy elementaries, plus Memorial Middle School.

All of those schools have either a D or F-rating from the state.

The decision to relinquish control of the schools was not in the hands of the district; choosing an external school operator was one of several options the Florida Department of Education ordered the district to choose to turnaround its low-performing schools.

“[The district] not getting it right. They had a bunch of years to get this right,” said parent Kelvin Stewart, who has students at Sheehy Elementary.

While he is sometimes frustrated with performance rates of his students’ school, he struggles with the idea that a company 1,000 miles away will do any better.

“If the school board’s going to send them in, it's nothing I can do about it, but to sit up there and say the teachers here can't teach the kids, that's wrong,” said parent Kelvin Stewart, who has students at Sheehy Elementary.

Phalen Leadership Academies does have a proven track record of improving failing schools, although the group has only been around since 2013, and has never run any schools in Florida.

The group currently operates 10 schools in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Gary, Indiana; as well as Detroit.

Hillsborough’s NAACP President Yvette Lewis said her organization does not approve of charter schools coming in to run traditional public ones. She said she approved the district’s decision to choose an external operator, only because the other options offered by the state could be even more detrimental to the students and public education.

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“I am satisfied with it, but am I happy that we had to go through that?" Lewis asked. "No.” She added that she expects the district to include the NAACP as it moves forward with the contract, and that her organization will be monitoring the process closely to make sure students are treated fairly.

Lewis also encouraged parents to get more involved in the conversation on the fate of the seven struggling schools, and hopes the larger Tampa Bay area will realize the onus is on everyone.

“It is real important that you get involved with your child’s education. It is {really} important that you review their lesson plans, it is {really} important that you speak to the teacher and that you understand what’s going on in the school system,” she said. “The kids are our future. These kids will be leading us, guiding us and caring for us, later on in life.”

Oct. 28, 2017: External consultants to run 7 struggling Hillsborough schools if they don't improve

Oct. 26, 2017: Seven Hillsborough schools facing charter takeover

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