Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools is guided by the belief that it cannot be a great school district until all of its schools are great for all of its students. It’s a tall order. However, guided by a series of policies and priorities that emphasize racial and academic equity, along with strong district leadership, Hillsborough County Schools is making important strides in its mission to provide an outstanding education to all students.
In recognition of its demonstrated effort and achievement, the Hillsborough County School Board has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence. The award, first presented in 2004, recognizes urban school systems for excellence in school board performance, academic improvement, commitment to educational equity, and community engagement.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins (lower left) and the Hillsborough County School Board. (Photo credit: Hillsborough County Public Schools)
In presenting the award, CUBE not only celebrates the success of outstanding school boards, but also shows other urban districts what excellence and achievement look like, says Jacinto Ramos Jr., chair of the CUBE Steering Committee. Hillsborough’s accomplishments “are evidence that the best school governance practices are a powerful force for positive change in urban education and a vital component in preparing all children for academic and life success,” Ramos says.
As the nation’s eighth-largest school system serving nearly 218,000 students in Tampa and its surrounding municipalities, “Hillsborough provides an impressive example of the impact that school leaders can and must have to ensure access to quality educational opportunities and academic achievement for urban students,” says Thomas J. Gentzel, NSBA executive director and CEO.
Encompassing an urban core and suburban and rural regions, Hillsborough County Schools has been particularly challenged by some “perpetually low-performing schools,” says board President Tamara Shamburger. To improve outcomes for the district’s lowest-achieving students, Hillsborough launched a turnaround initiative in 2018 for its 50 highest-needs schools.
Each of the designated Achievement Schools receives additional resources and support that stay at the school until it achieves at least a grade of “C” for three straight years under Florida’s school grading system.
The Hillsborough School Board has been equally engaged when it comes to establishing policies, practices, and strategies that promote and enhance equity and confront institutional racism. The district developed a racial equity plan and initiatives to increase educator diversity, to foster community partnerships, and to support a college-going culture in all of its school sites.
WWE wrestling star Titus O'Neil (red shirt, rear) supporting a Hillsborough County Schools back-to-school event. (Photo credit: Hillsborough County Public Schools)
It also adopted an approach to create an environment of respect and inclusion for each of its students. Those efforts were acknowledged with the inaugural RISE (Recognizing Innovative Strategies in Equity) Award presented by NSBA’s National Black Council of School Board Members in April 2018.
“Our work is very intentional,” Shamburger says. “Equity is a nice word. It feels good, but unfortunately it is often more of a theory rather than a practice. The Hillsborough School Board has been very intentional around creating a racial equity policy that impacts the practices in the district that really results in equity being the way of life in our school district.”
The policy also keeps the board and district accountable with measurable improvements that have helped to close the achievement gap, she says. The graduation rate or African-American and Hispanic students increased by 4.9 percent, exceptional education students jumped by 6.1 percent, and English learners improved by 8.8 percent.
Intentionality also extends to the board’s own preparation for leadership, teamwork, and ability to effectively benefit district students, teachers, and ultimately, the community. The Hillsborough board is enrolled in the Master Board Program, the governance team training offered by the Florida School Boards Association. The certification is crucial to ensuring leaders are performing at their highest level, which contributes to student success and community trust, Shamburger says.
“The training really helps us to learn about one another, how we operate, what our priorities are, and how we can best work together to become a high-functioning board. It’s probably the single most effective thing we’ve done as a board to strengthen ourselves and our collaboration.”