Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Sunday Conversation: Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins

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Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins doesn't hesitate to pull out charts and graphs when asked about the school district's improving graduation rates. Even when Eakins grapples with budget challenges, a demanding school board, administrative changes and struggling inner-city schools, the 3.1 point improvement in the graduation rate represents a beacon of positivity. That increase in the 2015-16 school year equates to 595 more kids leaving the system with a standard diploma.

Eakins also has adopted the motto "90 by 20." He wants Hillsborough County schools to have a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, and can readily show a chart that shows the district is headed toward meeting the goal.

The superintendent sat down with Times staff writer Ernest Hooper to talk about the improvements in the school district and the challenges he's faced leading it since taking over for ousted superintendent MaryEllen Elia in May 2015.

Tell me about the improvements in the graduation rate.

The really cool thing — and you hear about closing the achievement gaps, how you narrow the gap between African-American, Hispanic, students with disabilities and whites — all of the rates went up in all of those areas. Our African-American graduation rate jumped over 6 percent, our Latino boys were almost 5 percent, our students with disabilities were over a 5 percent increase. And our white overall graduation rate increased by 2 percentage points.

So it wasn't that someone went down to close the gap. Everyone went up but we accelerated the students who were a little bit behind.

What do you attribute that success to?

I think it goes back to our foundation: You gotta know the kids. You gotta know what some of the barriers are. We've developed a lot of personal relationships, focusing on the students who were on the borderline for graduation, whether they had GPA issues, lack of credits or it could have been the Florida Assessments that they have to pass ...

It's really how do we mentor, how do we connect those kids with the resources we need? I talk a lot about tenacity with the school district and if we have to be tenacious with the kids as far as how we support them.

So your goal is a graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020. I mentioned that to an educator recently, and they said: "90 by 2020? Ha." Is that a realistic goal?

What I've been saying is any goal that people chuckle at is a goal you can get an organization to wrap itself around it, especially if they start to see success ... What I want to keep in front of people is the gains we're making, if we can continue to make the same gains, we'll hit 90 by 2020. But you have to have people see it to believe it.

Those are the kind of things that can make all those chuckles turn to, "Hmm! This can be done." It's how do you build the confidence in the organization. And the way you have to do it is that you have to engage everyone in the organization, down to the teachers in elementary school.

For the teachers in your Title 1 schools, your "renaissance schools," the challenges are daunting. What's your message to them?

First of all, they have to feel support. That was my world growing up as a teacher. I oversaw the Title 1 program for eight years in the school district, so I know exactly how they feel, going into an environment where they see kids coming to them that aren't prepared or are lacking some particular skills.

So it's about knowing kids. That's been my message all along; Know them, know them, know them. Know what their deficits are but know what their strengths are. Let's build off of some of their strengths.

And I think part of it is creating an environment in our high-need schools where teachers feel like, "I have all the tools, I have the support, I have a great leader so I feel like I have a classroom environment that's structured in a manner that I can be successful and kids can be successful."

I know you don't want me to call it a "budget crisis," but how difficult is it to strive for those goals when you're dealing with, let's say, "budget issues."

The goal is not to have a negative impact on kids and teachers. That's what you have to protect. That's been the whole vetting process. How do we hold that environment sacred as we make some other kinds of tough changes. But what this has allowed us to do is see a challenge as an opportunity to reprioritize how we're doing things in our district.

Out of crisis arises opportunity.

Absolutely. That's what we're taking advantage of right now. It's tough to make some of the decisions we're making now in that first year because when something is going down fast, you have to hold on, you have to figure out a way to level it out.

Now, as we try to stabilize it long term, it's how do we take advantage of the things we know kids need: more services around guidance, more social work services. What resources do our teachers need? That now becomes the conversation, how we can reprioritize our dollars?

I've been a little impatient getting to that point ... but having a strategic plan now to point back to, having the goals set and the priorities set very clearly, it makes it a lot easier to have this conversation.

When you're dealing with budget issues, morale comes into play. What are you doing to boost morale?

I think part of it is we can't have the people who are closest to our kids feel a negative effect. Whether you're having a budget challenge or not, tomorrow kids are going to show up, adults are going to be there and it's an opportunity for adults to impact a kid's life.

Morale is built when people feel like they're being successful. It's when they feel like their hands are tied or they feel like I don't know how I'm going to overcome this challenge — that's when people feel like they're empty.

If you think about it, teaching is an emotional occupation because you're always dealing with a student, you're always dealing with other people in what you do every single day. And sometimes that can affect you, how you view yourself as a teacher or as an employee.

And so it goes back to setting the conditions right so the employees feel a sense of value, a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes that's hard because you have to have the right leader in place to give that to them every single day. You can't drop something out of the sky and expect everybody to feel better.

When you took this job, you inherited budget issues and a demand to improve the graduation rate. You have to answer to the board and you had to reshuffle your administration. Are there days when you wake up and think, "What have I stepped into?"

No, I haven't. As the superintendent, your goal is to support people who ultimately will support people who will help kids be successful. Your mind has to be on that. I've been blessed in my life to have great parents and amazing leaders to work for.

Challenges are going to come. Being steady in the midst of those challenges, having a plan that you can point to, to keep everybody else steady along the way is important.

I always tell my staff: I'm going to be the same person every day. You're never going to see me high up here, you're never going to see me low down here. But you're always going to see me interacting positively.

That's how you're going to get the most out of people. I'll never waiver on my character.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him @hoop4you.

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