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Marlene Sokol, Times Staff Writer

Marlene Sokol

Marlene Sokol has worked at the Times as a reporter, editor and columnist since 1988. After launching North of Tampa in 1996, she served first as its editor and later as a general assignment reporter specializing in the suburbs. She now covers education in Hillsborough County.

Phone: (813) 226-3356

  1. Hillsborough's stance on charter schools gets complicated as they take in more students


    TAMPA — School district leaders are talking tough as Gov. Rick Scott decides whether to sign a sweeping bill on education.

    They're cautioning against giving too much money and power to charter schools, which operate independently despite getting state funding. They're expressing indignation on social media that the Legislature would starve public schools in the name of choice.

    The reality, however, is more nuanced in Hillsborough County, where charter schools are becoming an integral part of the education landscape, approaching 9 percent of all students....

    Students enjoy lunch at a school run by Kid's Community College, a charter operation that has steadily added schools in the Riverview area since it arrived on the scene in 2005. The growth comes as charter schools become an integral part of the education landscape in Hillsborough County, even as school officials lament the impact of charter-friendly measures by the Legislature. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
  2. Departing fifth graders at Booker T. Washington Elementary leave lessons for their peers (w/video)


    TAMPA — Teaching kindergarteners how to make slime seems like a good idea — when you're 12.

    For Darius Troupe, the reality was noisy and messy, but worth it when he saw the children's smiles.

    "I see my future when I was standing up in front of that classroom," said the fifth-grader at Booker T. Washington Elementary, critiquing the experience in the final days of school....

    From left, Darius Troupe, 12, a fifth-grader at Booker T. Washington Elementary School mixes a recipe of slime for kindergartners Toby Harris, 6, and Tayvon Scott, 6, while he teaches the class on how to make slime. Students at Booker T. Washington Elementary School spent a "Day of Service" teaching their peers in a class exercise on May 24, 2017. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  3. A call for unity at graduation time


    A longstanding high school graduation tradition is falling by the wayside -- and some say it's about time.

    One by one, some schools have abandoned the practice of dressing graduates in gowns of contrasting colors, white for honors students, or those with a high grade point average; and a darker color for the rest.

    "I have brought up the issue at church and at work and I could see the visible facial trauma of those adults who told me their high school had different robes based on GPA," former School Board candidate Cathy James wrote in a letter to Supervisor Jeff Eakins. "Graduation should be a time of celebration, not segregation. Each member of a graduating class should remember their graduation ceremony as a unification with their classmates, not another example of how we divide each other."

    A quick spin through the webast videos shows that some high schools -- Gaither and Armwood, for example -- still use contrasting robe colors....

    Armwood High School graduates line up at the Florida State Fairgrounds
  4. Hillsborough teacher survey finds trouble spots amid rosy overall results


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County public school teachers are happy. They feel safe in their schools. Principals give them the materials and help they need.

    That's the district's reading of this year's Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning survey, which shows rates of agreement to positive statements at 80 percent and above.

    But those are averages. A closer look at Hillsborough's neediest schools shows teachers are not so happy....

    McLane Middle School in Brandon, where 83 percent of the teachers say on a new survey that they enjoy working there. The numbers were lower in previous years when the school was struggling with violence. Today, other schools are suffering from low morale, even as overall numbers are positive across the Hillsborough County school district.  The Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning survey was administered between Jan. 9 and March 10. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  5. Eakins and Stuart: Veto the schools bill


    Here's the letter Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins and School Board Chairwoman Cindy Stuart sent this week to Gov. Rick Scott about House Bill 7069.

    It pulls no punches, and forget about any notion that Hillsborough has been selling out to the charter school movement....

    Cindy Stuart is chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board.
  6. Hillsborough school superintendent turns down raise, gets three-year contract


    TAMPA — The Hillsborough School Board gave superintendent Jeff Eakins a new three-year contract, telling him at a meeting Tuesday evening that they were amazed he turned down offers of a raise.

    Eakins, who makes $225,000 a year plus benefits, refused to take a standard 3 percent increase after the first year of the new contract. He also declined, during negotiations, to consider the higher salaries of superintendents in other districts, leaving his pay rate unchanged....

    Hillsborough School District Superintendent Jeff Eakins will recommend new starting times at a special school board meeting today, although the schedule will not take effect until August 2018. [Times files (2015)]
  7. New principals at Lennard, Davidsen, Pierce (not so new at Pierce)


    The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday approved these new principals:

    At Pierce Middle School, Pablo Gallego, 43. Gallego has been the school's acting principal since Raymond Padgett was transferred to the district's communications office in 2016. Gallego has been with the district since 2002. He taught at Bellamy and Morgan Woods elementary schools and became an administrative resource teacher at Pierce in 2012, promoted in 2013 to assistant principal. ...

    Stacy Arena is now principal of Davidsen Middle School.
  8. What happened to Van Buren Middle School?


    In a question-and-answer document to inform the community about a planned merger between Cahoon Elementary School and Van Buren Middle School, the Hillsborough district gave three reasons when asked why Van Buren is operating at 41 percent of capacity:

    Choice, families moving, and personal preference....

  9. Advocates say help is on the way for troubled Potter Elementary


    TAMPA — Children who live near Potter Elementary School will have a new option in August. An early learning center is opening just steps away, serving kindergarten and first grade, with plans to expand later.

    It's one of several projects under way to assist Potter, a four-time F school whose troubles have attracted widespread attention in recent months.

    With pastors pressuring the school district to do more for Potter, a new committee will link its kindergarten teachers with the preschools nearby. And Potter will become a teacher training site for the University of South Florida....

    Potter Elementary is a four-time F school whose troubles have attracted attention from local pastors and the school district.
  10. As graduation nears, student who once collapsed at Plant High reflects on life and loss


    TAMPA — Not everybody gets a second chance.

    Charlie Curtis knew that after he collapsed while running the mile in gym class at Plant High School.

    He's known it in the three years since, while spreading the word about the importance of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

    He knows it even more this week, as the Class of 2017 prepares to graduate while mourning the recent deaths of two of its members, Katie Golden and Bella Galan-Valdes....

    “Everyone’s heart’s out for those families. … It’s just really, really intense that my story came out okay, but so horrible that it didn’t for them.” Charlie Curtis, 18
  11. Hillsborough school district leaders are encouraged by teacher survey results


    NOTE: This story has been revised to correct errors in the first post.

    This is Part I of our report on Hillsborough's Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning report.

    Part II will include a school-by-school spreadsheet, which we are expecting any day now.

    The district did release the aggregate report that contains a lot of good news about how teachers feel about their jobs....

  12. Boundary changes affecting more than a dozen Hillsborough schools come to a vote on Tuesday


    TAMPA —After months of Facebook chatter and petition drives, parents and homeowners will get one more chance on Tuesday to try and talk politicians out of rezoning their children's schools.

    The Hillsborough County School Board plans to take up a complicated boundary plan at its 3 p.m. meeting. In all, it affects more than a dozen schools in affluent New Tampa and working-class North Tampa....

    Hillsborough Schools Assistant Superintendent Owen Young, center spoke to Cahoon Elementary School parents during an April meeting about rezoning plans for the school.
  13. Eakins: Hillsborough schools budget will be 'very tight' if state legislation is signed into law


    TAMPA — Strapped for cash even before the Legislature voted this week to skimp on per-student funding, Hillsborough County's public schools are now bracing for more bad news.

    The state's proposed new budget could slow initiatives designed to help students meet graduation requirements, and even lead to a hiring freeze, superintendent Jeff Eakins said Wednesday.

    PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Population growth will mean more debt and painful rezoning for Hillsborough schools...

    Photo illustration. [Times files]
  14. Bonuses are back


    The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday will vote to renew Superintendent Jeff Eakins' contract.

    And, unlike the first contract, this one has something that incurred some criticism for his predecessor -- performance bonuses....

    Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins will be rewarded for boosting graduation rates according to a contract that will come up for a School Board vote on Tuesday. He's already presided over a 3-point increase.
  15. Riverview High teacher cleared after group claims she pushed gay rights on students


    TAMPA — A teacher at Riverview High School who was accused by a conservative organization of banning crosses while advocating for gay rights has been cleared of wrongdoing after a school district investigation.

    Lora Jane Riedas, who teaches freshman math and is faculty advisor of Riverview's Gay Straight Alliance, said she did not allow rosaries, as they are considered gang symbols and not allowed in the school dress code....

    Riverview High School math teacher Lora Jane Riedas was the target of a complaint by the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian organization that said  Riedas, as student advisor of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, was bringing pro-gay politics into the classroom. The school district has cleared her of the allegations on Monday. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]