Posted by: Tate Kubler on Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Throughout Tampa, we are witnessing transformational change with the presence of cranes in downtown and other infrastructure projects spreading to the north, south, east and west. Established businesses are moving to the region and local entrepreneurs are establishing their own presence through creative new ventures. There are so many who are contributing to the thriving economy of Tampa and our community’s educators might have the greatest and longest-lasting impact of them all. The Leadership Tampa Class of 2020 (LT'20) had the opportunity to spend the day with Tampa’s great educators; those who are responsible for refueling the economy and facilitating the learning that is the foundation for Tampa’s sustained growth.

Education Day was organized by Mark Colvenbach, Director in the Office of Career Services at the University of Tampa.  It was held on November 20, 2019, and showcased the amazing and wide-ranging educational opportunities that residents of Tampa have at their fingertips.  As leaders in the community, it was an education for the LT20 class on how the various institutions and systems operate with the same objectives to facilitate learning and skills development for students who will ultimately contribute to the Tampa Bay economy.

To prepare for Education Day, each member of the LT20 class spent a full day, shadowing teachers in an elementary, middle or high school in Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS).  The experience taught the class firsthand that the teachers of Hillsborough County Public Schools are heroes to their students and are truly making an impact on the lives, and families, of the students in the classroom. Quite honestly, they were heroes in the eyes of the LT20 class as well, as many in the LT20 class were amazed at the teachers’ abilities to control the focus of the classroom, their commitment to extracurricular education (e.g. teaching debate) and above all else their passion for the students.  As the author of this article, I personally got the opportunity to spend the day with Marie Smith and Lee Gaspar at Sickles High School.  These two amazing teachers truly care for the students who walk through their doors each day, and it was evident not only in how they taught their students but in how their students respected them. There is no doubt that these teachers give it their very best each day to educate the students who sit in their classrooms. Today’s teacher not only has to come prepared to equip students with the skills necessary to grow intellectually, but they also have to come prepared to handle today’s classroom distractions, which are many.

For perspective on the activities of Education Day, Jeff Eakins, HCPS Superintendent spoke to the LT20 class sharing that HCPS sees itself as the economic driver of the Tampa community.  That is in fact reality considering Hillsborough County Schools has 217,000 students, just became the 7th largest school district in the United States and expects the growth trend to continue with 3,000 to 5,000 new students enrolling each year.  It was fascinating to hear how the leader of such a large school system manages that commitment to community growth.  Mr. Eakins said that to meet the needs of the current student population the HCPS needs to be nimble and provide more choice options, and in doing so HCPS must create pathways that meet students’ needs and local business needs.  Following that concept, we learned that HCPS is not simply classrooms teaching kindergarten through 12th grade anymore.  HCPS has evolved to include 4,000 pre-K students, a VPK program associated with Head Start, 4 technical colleges to serve members in the skills-based workforce, and virtual programs that are increasing exponentially to align with the shifting landscape.  As important as the evolution in learning delivery or student reach, HCPS has established community partnerships with the families in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools.  Schooling does not end when a student reaches 18 or 19 years of age nor does it end when the last bell rings and that has been recognized by HCPS.  Community outreach programs have been established at many schools, such as on-campus food pantries to ensure families and their students have the ability to eat dinner, or adult programs designed to meet the needs of those living within the community.  This additional shift in the reach of public education has also found its way into the Hillsborough County Jail and into Tampa General Hospital.  This broader, unrestricted access to public education is establishing a much greater foundation for the future workforce of Tampa.

The other aspect of Mr. Eakins's conversation with the LT20 class was around HCPS's strategic plan.  It was explained that upon his hiring as Superintendent a five-year plan was established that focused on improving graduation rates. An analogy to a 4x100 relay was used to explain how long a student spends in HCPS, and HCPS measures itself on how a student finishes.  Over the past five years, HCPS went from 10,500 graduates in 2013 to over 14,000 in 2018 representing an 85.8% graduation rate, an outstanding accomplishment given the size of the student population.  After achieving a positive trend in the graduation rates, Mr. Eakins and the school board learned that there is a correlation between on-level preparation in 3rd-grade students and high school graduation rates.  As a result, the next strategic plan is focused on being very deliberate around teaching the foundational skills taught in pre-K, elementary and middle schools.  It is this linkage that has HCPS focused on improving the learning readiness of students entering kindergarten, as well as improving the on-level reading percentage for third graders from the current 50% level to 80%. The foundational skills learned in the early education years have been determined to be critical to the future success of Tampa’s workforce and education level of the Tampa community and HCPS is focused on making improvements in those areas.

Mr. Eakins spoke to the LT20 class after the first stop of the day; however, his words were important to frame Education Day and what was observed.

During the morning of Education Day, the LT20 class arrived at Academy Prep Center of Tampa, which is a non-profit, private middle school for economically disadvantaged students in Tampa.  It is dedicated to educating students by providing an academically challenging, enriching and structured environment followed by 8 years of support and guidance through high school and into college.  We had the opportunity to hear from L’Tanya C. Evans, Head of School, as well as certain members of her staff. What makes the Academy Prep Center succeed is a combination of the students attending school for 11 hours a day for 11 months coupled with graduate support services through high school and into the student’s preparation for college.  The school is predicated on developing the middle school mind and establishing the foundation for high school and college success.  Ms. Evans believes the middle school student is susceptible to impression and can be taught the skills and learning necessary to go on to be successful. In fact, many students arrive at Academy Prep below level and by the end of their first year at the school are above level.  The LT20 class visited the classrooms and it was evident that a high degree of learning was taking place.  All students were in uniforms and were completely engaged in the curriculum.  In one classroom, eighth-grade girls who were writing sentences with an abstract noun, stood when the LT20 class entered the room, shook hands with everyone and one-by-one introduced themselves to the members of the LT20 class.  This was completely unplanned and showed their preparedness for high school and life beyond the classroom walls.


In the auditorium of Academy Prep are pennants that show all of the high schools that graduates have attended, with many of the pennants being from the most prestigious private schools in Tampa and in other cities.  It is a testament to the educators and counselors at Academy Prep who support the students and help them secure need-based scholarships in the hopes that they continue and become community leaders.  As is a focus of Mr. Eakins, foundational skills are key to high school graduation and 98% of Academy Prep alumni graduate from high school and approximately 87% go on to college, while 9% serve in the armed forces. Academy Prep of Tampa is a place where educators are making an impact.

The next stop on Education Day was Carter G. Woodson K-8 School to which the LT20 class was hosted by Ovett Wilson, Principal.  At the school, the LT20 class heard from Jeff Eakins followed by Mr. Wilson.  Carter G. Woodson was an important stop because it showcased how HCPS is evolving to meet the needs of the community and the students of the school. Carter G. Woodson had previously been Cahoon Elementary (grades K-5) and Van Buren Middle School (grades 6-8) but was combined under the stewardship of Mr. Wilson and renamed as Carter G. Woodson for the 2018-2019 school year. This is an example of a community-focused school where pre-K classes are now offered; adult programs occur each month and there is a clothing closet and food pantry on-campus; both of which are accessible to the families of the school.  Mr. Wilson shared his 1-2-4 philosophy where everything operates around the student.  His teaching staff is determined to help the students achieve their potential sharing with them that, regardless of their background or situation, greatness is within them.  Another example of where educators are making an impact and HCPS is evolving to allow for the greatest impact.

After visiting Carter G. Woodson, the LT20 class headed to East Hillsborough County to Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, FL which was named in the Top 50 most beautiful campuses.  Upon arrival the junior ROTC regiment, in full uniform, greeted the LT20 class providing direction and answering questions as we found our way to the media center.  After entering the doors, full restaurant-style seating was prepared for the LT20 class, hosted by the school’s Culinary Arts Students under the direction of Chef Paul Bonano. Lunch was prepared from scratch by the culinary students and served using their culinary skills which ranged from baking to restaurant management including front of the house management.


It was only fitting that their delicious meal was finished off with strawberry shortcake.  While having lunch, a more humbling conversation over school safety and security was had with John Newman, Chief of Security for HCPS.  Mr. Newman explained that following the February 2018 school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Florida became the only state under legislative mandate requiring school systems to implement measures to secure school campuses. Mr. Newman shared a disturbing video, Inside Building 12, that in schematic display showed the gunman and students’ movements during the incident that day.  He explained that a lot has been learned from that event and HCPS is paving the way when it comes to acting upon what was learned.  In response, Mr. Newman explained that schools have always had good plans and basic training, but a cultural change had to happen for action to be taken.  In response, every HCPS school began target hardening (e.g., establishing single entry points for visitors) and began a cultural change to ensure every teacher or member of staff had the ability to identify a threat, communicate a threat and mitigate a threat.  To do so, the teachers needed the tools.  Teachers were not hired to provide security, but they do need to have the ability to communicate when something is happening.  This was a critical lesson learned from the February 2018 incident and in response, HCPS invested in the Centegix security platform, which allows all employees of HCPS to call for help at any time and anywhere on a Hillsborough County Schools property. It is a system that allows HCPS staff members to initiate an alert quickly and reliably anywhere on a school campus, inside or outside the building.  The system identifies where the call is being made to allow for timely security response, as well as provides for preventative access controls to take effect such as automatic door locks.  In addition, every school in HCPS now has an armed police officer that is trained in active shooter situations further hardening the schools.

While security is one way to address the issue, the other path is through mental health awareness.  HCPS has adopted the Sandy Hook Promise and is actively focused on prevention, awareness, and inclusivity with regards to mental health matters.  It is clear that with such a tragedy HCPS is serious about the safety of its students and is being a leader in that regard.

After lunch concluded, the LT20 class headed across the Hillsborough River to the University of Tampa for a prestigious panel of university and college presidents.  The participants included Dr. Ronal Vaughn, President of The University of Tampa; Dr. Jeffrey Senese, President of Saint Leo University; and Dr. Kenneth Atwater, President of Hillsborough Community College.


Each of the presidents had interesting viewpoints as their schools are each uniquely different and serve different populations.  For example, UT is a talent importer to Tampa with 50% of its student population enrolling from out of state, with a large majority remaining in Tampa after graduation. Saint Leo has the goal of being more known and connected with the Tampa business environment as it has 25,000 students spread across 33 locations.  It was evident from the dialogue that universities and HCC are developing workforce-ready talent and are working hard to keep their graduates local so that Tampa can be the beneficiary of the economic impact.

The final stop for Education Day was at the Allied Health Building on the Dale Mabry Campus of Hillsborough Community College.  The Allied Health Building is a recent addition to the campus designed specifically to develop the skills of health providers and lab scientists operating in the health arena.  The building is state of the art with collaboration spaces and high-tech equipment used in simulation labs to train students in real-life medical situations.  In the Med Lab, the LT20 class learned about blood schmears and how a laboratory scientist can determine what disease is in the blood ultimately helping a doctor recommend a treatment.  In the EMS Lab, the LT20 class learned that when performing CPR, one should no longer perform mouth to mouth immediately and instead perform 30 chest compressions to the tune of Stayin Alive. Lastly, in the Sim Lab there are 8 simulation rooms with real-life mannequins that have given names, blink, have mannequin babies and are cared for almost as if they were human.   The LT20 class had to react to the mannequin, Apollo, and his medical emergency.  The LT20 class performed a tracheotomy on Apollo to get his airway cleared so he could breathe again.  It was such an incredible experience because HCC is facilitating the hands-on development training that is necessary to support the technical trades workforce.


In conclusion, Tampa is thriving on the underlying foundation of its education system across all levels.  It was evident that Tampa’s educational institutions are lead by passionate leaders who want to make an impact on students and their families. Mr. Eakins indicated that one of the first questions businesses ask when they are looking to relocate to Tampa is “How are the schools?”  It is with pride that Tampa can affirmatively say the schools are great and consistently improving across all levels from the pre-schools to public and private grade schools to the colleges and universities in the area. Without the commitment to education, Tampa’s economy would not be refueling every year.  The strength of the education system in Tampa was on full display during Education Day and it would be negligent to not extend a thank you to all of the educators and staff members who serve Tampa’s students each and every day.  You are heroes to your students and are making a real impact on Tampa today and into the future!