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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. Teachers in Hillsborough decide that for a week they will 'work the contract'


    TAMPA — Teachers in Hillsborough County will "work the contract" for a week after Thanksgiving to illustrate their dissatisfaction with treatment from the school district.

    That means no late meetings or phone calls with parents and no grading papers at home.

    "It's to make a point that this is what things would be like if teachers really did that all the time," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association....

    A standing-room-only crowd at Thursday's meeting of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association voted to "work the contract" for a week to protest treatment from the school district. [Photo courtesy of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association]
  2. As contract talks stall, Hillsborough teachers campaign for raises with email and pickets


    TAMPA — With contract negotiations stalled, Hillsborough County teachers are on a campaign to try to get their scheduled pay raises.

    Emails are going out to the School Board, superintendent Jeff Eakins and the media, from parents and teachers alike.

    "I have been rated highly effective for the entirety of my career," wrote Emmie Deininger, a seventh-grade teacher at Farnell Middle School in Westchase. ...

    Teachers picketed outside Steinbrenner High School on Monday morning. They are pushing for scheduled pay raises of $4,000 for roughly a third of the district's teaching force. The Hillsborough County School District says it can't afford the pay bump. [Photo courtesy of WTSP-Ch. 10]
  3. What we know about New York terror suspect Sayfullo Saipov's Tampa ties


    TAMPA — The man New York authorities say used a truck to kill at least eight people in Manhattan Tuesday had an address in Tampa, according to media reports and a Missouri court record.

    What we know so far about 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov suggests the outline of an immigrant from Uzbekistan who has tried to make a living on the road as a truck driver, has had a few brushes with the law for traffic offenses and may have lived in several states....

    Sayfullo Saipov is a suspect in the terror attack in New York. [CBS NEWS]
  4. New complaint against Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes prompts investigation


    TAMPA — Already the subject of multiple complaints that she says are politically motivated, Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes has been named in a new one, this time involving the closing of the district's planning and construction department.

    The Florida Department of Education is directing the school district to investigate an anonymous complaint that suggests Valdes influenced administrators to dissolve the district department last year so its staff could not address problems with construction work performed by her friends and campaign donors. If the district doesn't investigate and report back in 30 days, state officials said in letter they will conduct their own inquiry. ...

    Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes is accused in an anonymous complaint of influencing a decision to close the district's planning and construction department to protect friends and campaign donors. Valdes insists the claims are false and says political rivals frequently target her. [Times files]
  5. For seven struggling schools, Hillsborough selects the least disruptive turnaround option


    TAMPA - Faced with four possible back-up plans for seven D and F schools, the Hillsborough County School District chose the least disruptive for all seven: Partnership with an outside consulting firm.

    That means that if Potter, Booker T. Washington, Sheehy, Foster, Oak Park, Mort elementary or Memorial Middle School don't improve to at least a C this year, the district will call for assistance -- but will remain in charge....

    Booker T. Washington Elementary is one of seven Hillsborough schools ordered to submit turnaround options in case they do not earn at least a C grade this school year.
  6. New state law targets seven Hillsborough schools with D's and F's


    TAMPA — The state is telling Hillsborough County to have contingency plans ready by Friday for seven struggling schools in case they don't receive C grades or better at the end of the year.

    The directive affects D-rated Foster, Mort, Oak Park and Sheehy elementary schools; D-rated Memorial Middle; and Potter and Booker T. Washington elementary schools, which are both rated F.

    Districts have four options for such schools, assuming they do not improve to a C....

    Parents walk their students home from Mort Elementary, which is two points shy of a C grade for 2016-17. Now the state wants the North Tampa school to make a contingency plan in case it fails to get a C for this school year. Six other HIllsborough County schools face the same situation. [Times files]
  7. With classrooms to spare in urban areas, Hillsborough wants to fill empty space with preschool kids


    TAMPA — Hundreds of low-income children could have access to quality preschool next year under a plan now under development in the Hillsborough County School District.

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday he has asked his assistant superintendent in charge of academic support and federal programs to scout out elementary schools in high-poverty neighborhoods that have extra rooms that can be refitted to accommodate 3- and 4-year-old students....

    A new plan announced by Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins would use empty space in a number of schools to start preschool programs. The set up would allow kids to stay in the same school from preschool to kindergarten. "We are literally creating the pipeline and the transition for kids," Eakins said. [Times | 2005]
  8. Hillsborough teachers get a hard no on scheduled pay raises


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County teachers who were expecting $4,000 raises this year will not get them because of continued financial pressures, their union was told this week.

    “We cannot responsibly award raises,” employee relations manager Mark West told the union during bargaining talks.

    Over the last three years, he estimated, the district has given out $75 million in raises. “That spending has kind of caught up with us,” he said....

    This might be the last teacher bargaining session in Hillsborough for awhile. Although the two sides are not officially at an impasse, the district says it cannot pay teachers their scheduled raises.
  9. Here's what happened when 30 high school sophomores gave up their phones for a day


    LUTZ — They were everywhere at Steinbrenner High School. Teens with panic-stricken faces, furiously slapping one thigh, then the other.

    My phone … Where's my phone?

    Then they'd remember.

    They were reading Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, and the assignment from English teacher Tiffany Southwell — strictly optional — had been to explore the book's themes of entertainment overload and social alienation. Give me your phones for a day, she suggested to 30 sophomores, and write me an essay....

    Grace Hayes, 15, left, and Kai'Rell Lewis, 15, talk and text friends after having a discussion about smartphone technology in Tiffany Southwell's English Literature class at Steinbrenner High last week. Southwell asked theme to give up their phones for a day and write about it. For Lewis, the ride home that day "was the longest bus ride in my life." [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  10. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath


    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    That was before the arrival of "the serial killer," as residents are now calling whoever snuffed out three lives in the last two weeks in southeast Seminole Heights. ...

    Faith Baptist Church in Seminole Heights expresses a biblical sentiment on Friday, when about 50 residents marched in an evening rally in memory of the three victims.
  11. Former Hillsborough school official files lawsuit alleging high-level corruption


    TAMPA — The fired human resources chief of the Hillsborough County School District is accusing district leaders and two School Board members of committing corrupt acts and then punishing her when she would not go along.

    Stephanie Woodford alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that managers were pressured to hire a board member's friend who was not qualified, that Woodford was asked to cover up that act in a state ethics case, and that one board member pushed another to revise her evaluation of superintendent Jeff Eakins....

    Stephanie Woodford rose through the ranks of the Hillsborough County School District, then was fired as Chief of Human Resources on April 28. She's now suing the district, alleging numerous acts of corruption. [EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times]
  12. It's official: Hillsborough high schools move to 8:30 a.m. start time, elementary schools to go earlier


    TAMPA — Hillsborough County high schools will start an hour later next year, beginning the day at 8:30 a.m. and ending at 3:25 p.m., the School Board decided Tuesday in a 6-0 vote.

    Elementary schools will run from 7:40 a.m. to 1:55 p.m., and middle schools from 9:25 a.m. to 4:20 p.m.

    There are exceptions: For example, elementary schools that have been deemed by the state to require more reading time will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:25 p.m. At last count, Hillsborough had 36 so-called "extra reading time" schools....

    The Hillsborough County School Board has decided to end a compressed bus schedule that caused an estimated 12,000 children to get to school late every day. Under the new schedule, high schools will start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. Elementary schools will start at 7:40 a.m. and middle schools at 9:25 a.m. [Times files]
  13. Hillsborough board to vote on new school start times


    TAMPA — The big issue at today's Hillsborough County School Board meeting will be the 2018-19 bell schedule. To save money and get students to school on time, superintendent Jeff Eakins has proposed an earlier start for elementary schools (7:40 a.m.) and a later start for high schools (8:30 a.m.)....

    Hillsborough County School Board members tried to work out their differences at a training day in Temple Terrace on Oct. 11. Today, they will vote on revised school start times for 2018-19. [COLLEEN WRIGHT | Times]
  14. Expulsion cases are down, but not as much in New Tampa


    Expulsion and change of placement cases dropped dramatically in Hillsborough County this past year, to a total of 244.

    That's down from 508 in 2015-16 and 500 for 2014-15. And it is s steep drop from a decade ago, when the district removed as many as 1,000 students, mostly from its middle and high schools.

    A detailed report from the school district 
    shows that African American students account for more than half the cases (124) even though they make up 21 percent of the student population. The proportions are fairly consistent with past years even though the total numbers have fallen across the board.

    A big change, under new district policies on discipline, is in the rate of expulsion cases in middle schools. A decade ago, in 2007, the numbers were McLane: 51, Eisenhower: 35, and Madison: 30. This year they are McLane: 3, Eisenhower: 5, and Madison: 5. For the last two years, district leaders have emphasized counseling, mentoring and social-emotional learning programs to address behavioral issues before they escalate. Expulsion cases are limited to specific offenses such as sexual battery, possession of a weapon, threat to the life of another student, and drug possession with intent to sell.

    Two exceptions in a sea of mostly lower numbers were in New Tampa's two high schools. Freedom High had 23 expulsion and change of placement cases, nearly 10 percent of the entire district. Wharton High came in second place with 17.

    New this year in the report is a school-by-school count of 58 students who have shown "continually disruptive behavior." That's what is represented in the sixth, unlabelled spreadsheet page. 

    Those 58 students are not included in the expulsion and change of placement statistics, as their offenses do not rise to the level that would allow an expulsion hearing. They can remain in their schools or, in some cases, be moved to an alternative site....

    Freedom High School led Hillsborough County this year in expulsion and change of placement cases, with 23.
  15. Here's what those two charter schools promised the Hillsborough School Board


    How much authority do local school boards have over charter schools?

    Not a lot, the Hillsborough board was reminded this week.

    Two D-rated charter schools were required, by law, to come before the elected board and present their plans for improvement.

    But, the board members were told, they would not be asked to sign off on the plans and staff, although allowed to visit the schools regularly and offer help, cannot do their thinking for them....

    Woodmont Charter School has a new principal who described himself as a turnaround specialist. "It's all on me to get the job done," Lane Morris said.