"It's open mic time," said MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Florida's Hillsborough County Schools, the eighth-largest school district in the nation. Elia said at the Sept. 8, 2008 town hall meeting at Burns Middle School that the district's Area 5 schools, headed by director Sherrie Sikes, a Brandon High School graduate, cover "the largest geographic area and have the largest number of students." The area has 25 elementary, seven middle and five high schools in addition to 1 career center and ancillary site. Some 35,585 students are enrolled in these 39 sites. Elia talked about her district's four goals (student achievement, human resources, safety and fiscal responsiblity) and hosted a series of questions. About 16 questionners stepped up to the microphone; a majority of their questions concerned transportation.
The Burns Middle School Orchestra performed for the town hall gathering before the start of the Sept. 8, 2008 meeting. It was noted that through the Burns music program, six students qualified for All-State honors; 40, for All-County; and eight have been designated Master Musicians. Pictured is Jack "J.T." O'Connell on the viola.
Ray Alzamora raised concerns that NRT testing in Hillsborough County schools no longer was administered. Norm-referenced testing, he noted, gave parents an indication of how their children fared against students nationwide, and not just among their peers in Florida (as is the case with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, known as "FCAT"). Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she shared his concern. "I'm one of the most vocal NRT advocates," she said. "I share your concern. And you're right, it's gone."
Pearl Chiarenza, a parent and the PTA president at Cimino Elementary School, started the question- and-answer period with her concerns about school bus stop safety. Chiarenza said her concern is a two-year-old issue at least. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the Hillsborough County School District had received more than 300 requests "to check out specific" concerns and that close to 200 have been checked out. As result, some 80 changes have been made. "If yours is not on the list that's what we need to get to," Elia said.
A parent discusses her bus safety concerns with John Franklin, head of transportation for the Hillsborough County School District.
Deputy Superintendent Ken Otero has a private word with Valrico Elementary School parent Becky Goodman, whose kindergartner ended up on the bus home. Goodman said she had never signed a consent form to bus her child. She found her daughter "crying in the driveway, crying looking down the street for me," Goodman said. "I am so sorry. Thank God your daughter is safe," said Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "I can understand how scared you were and how scared your daughter was. I'm very, very sorry that happened and it shouldn't have happened." Goodman said she, too, wanted to make sure it doesn't happen again -- to any child. Elia asked Goodman to discuss the issue further with Otero and to arrange the necessary meetings with school officials.
"You know, I really love what I do and I always had great parents," said Sheila Mingo in an interview after the town hall meeting. Mingo tranports students to Spoto High School and Bing Elementary School. "I've been doing this since 2001, and I've always had great parents working with me." She said her best advice to parents is "just be patient with us. We're trying." She promised, too, that "when those kids get on my bus I treat them like they're my own kids."
Betsy Delgado raised a concern about her daughter's bus stop. After working with transportation officials at the town hall meeting, she said the matter had been resolved. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said if the magnet school bus Delgado's daughter rides passes by her home, it should drop the girl off, rather than risk her safety at the assigned stop that Delgado said is not safe.
Former math teacher James Gibbs, Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year in 2007-08, is now the AVID coordinator at Burns Middle School. AVID stands for "Advancement Via Individual Determination" and is aimed towrd students not in the upper-quartile, not in the lower-quartile, but right smack in the middle, where needs often are overlooked, Gibbs said. "I jumped at the opportunity [to be an AVID coordinator]," said Gibbs, who started teaching after his career in the military. "It's what I do. It's very motivational. It's very philosophical. It's very academic." He added: "If you can get students excited about college in middle school then they start off on the right path in high school. They're not only going to college but going to college on scholarships. Eighty percent of AVID kids get scholarships, he said about the nationwide program that started in California about 28 years ago. The program is five years old in Hillsborough "and just rolled out in Eastern Hillsborough," Gibbs said. "We all it the AVID family. It's a very stringent process to get in. Kids get interviewed, their parents get interviewed, and we look at grades, FCAT and NRT scores, financial situations and family dynamics." Gibbs said the work is all worth it "when a kids looks you in the eye and tells you he's going to be a paleontologist, he can spell it, and he tells you how he's going to get there. That's it, that's it right there. You're touching the future."
Hillsborough County School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia noted at the town hall meeting that Area 5 schools had 10 five-star schools: Apollo Beach, Brooker, Cimino, Corr, Mintz, Sessums, Summerfield and Symmes elementary schools; and Dowdell and Giunta middle schools. Alafia, the first elementary school to house an official branch of the Suncoast Federal Credit Union, is a 2008 Little Red Schoolhouse winner in the category of community involvement.
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