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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. 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. ...

    Bryan Edmunson prays Friday over the memorial of Anthony Naiboa. He said his girlfriend lives less than half a mile from where Naiboa was found dead.
  2. 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]
  3. 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]
  4. 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]
  5. 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.
  6. 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....

    Community Charter School of Excellence promises to increase grade-level test scores by 50 percent --- three students at a time.
  7. Hillsborough proposes starting high school at 8:30 a.m., elementary school at 7:40 a.m.


    TAMPA — A new plan for public school times in Hillsborough County seeks to ease sleep deprivation for high school students and put magnet programs on more attractive schedules.

    If adopted by the School Board next week, it will save money and cut down on late buses, officials said Tuesday.

    And, unlike last year's rushed effort to change school schedules, it follows months of surveys, emails and face-to-face conversations with students, teachers and parents....

    As the busing system makes it necessary to coordinate magnet schools with high schools, those programs were suffering under the old system, with children waiting at the bus stops well before sunrise. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Times]
  8. Can two low-performing charter schools improve? Hillsborough to hear their plans today


    TAMPA — Two charter school operators will appear Tuesday before the Hillsborough County School Board, defending their low state grades and presenting their plans for improvement.

    One, Woodmont Charter, is part of the large Charter Schools USA group, which now operates five schools in Hillsborough County. While others in the group benefit from suburban populations and have long waiting lists, Woodmont, in Temple Terrace, serves a largely low-income community and has struggled over the years....

    Woodmont Charter in Temple Terrace is one of two charter schools that must come before the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday to defend their low grades and discuss their plans for improvement. Woodmont has a D from the state for the third straight year. [WILL VRAGOVIC  |  TIMES]

  9. Bell times today in Hillsborough


    With new bell times coming before the Hillsborough County School Board in a week, the administration is due to release the schedule on the board's agenda.

    But this won't be a quiet release of information.

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins has scheduled an 11:30 a.m. news conference -- in time for the noon television broadcasts -- to release and discuss next year's school hours.

    The idea is to make sure everyone knows and has 10 full months to plan for the changes....

  10. Fire Marshal: Lee Elementary fire was accidental and electrical, with storm damage a contributing factor


    TAMPA — The Sept. 12 fire at historic Lee Elementary School was caused by an electrical failure, with wind and rain from Hurricane Irma likely contributors.

    That’s the conclusion of Tampa Fire Rescue, which announced Wednesday that the fire had been ruled accidental and the case was closed.

    In doing so, officials doused suspicions that the fire might have been set by someone angry that the 111-year-old school was renamed in 1943 for Confederate General Robert E. Lee....

  11. Hillsborough schools: The welcome mat is out for displaced students from Puerto Rico


    TAMPA — Students from Puerto Rico and other islands ravaged by recent hurricanes are welcome in Hillsborough County. It says so at the top of the district website, in Spanish.

    And now it's a message that has been passed to the principals of the district's more than 240 schools, in writing last week and verbally at Tuesday's School Board meeting.

    "They should be welcome in our schools and every effort should be made to enroll the students on the same day," superintendent Jeff Eakins said....

    Hillsborough County area superintendent Marcos Murillo left Puerto Rico at age 24 and has spent the last 10 days trying to help his own relatives get out. He said there is no telling how many displaced families from the island will come to the district. "It could be hundreds, it could be thousands," he said. "And they could come trickling in, little by little."
  12. Hillsborough School Board will not join lawsuit challenging Florida's new education law


    TAMPA — The cash-strapped Hillsborough County School District will not sue to overturn a sweeping new education law, School Board members decided Thursday.

    One by one, they gave their reasons: A lawsuit is too expensive. It would consume too much staff time. And it could poison relationships with lawmakers.

    "They're watching. They're really, really watching," said board member April Griffin....

    Booker T. Washington Elementary in Tampa is one of 37 schools that require extra reading time under Florida's new education law. Hillsborough County School Board members are discussing the law's implications in meetings today, including whether to sue the Legislature. [Times files | 2010]
  13. Winners and losers under H.B. 7069


    To hear the rhetoric, no one wins under the sweeping Florida education law known as House Bill 7069.

    School district leaders in Hillsborough County signed scathing letters to first the legislators and then Gov. Rick Scott, challenging how the law was written, how many different topics it covered and what they considered over-reach in the way it directed them to spend money.

    A day of workshops is planned Thursday to help School Board members understand the law and decide whether to join others who want to sue the state....

    Edison Elementary in East Tampa stands to lose nearly $300,000 in anti-poverty funds under the controversial state law HB 7069.
  14. Children from Puerto Rico are expected in Hillsborough schools


    It's safe to assume that when residents of Puerto Rico begin leaving the island in large numbers, many will take up residence in Florida.

    But what part of Florida, and where will they go to school?

    Hillsborough County is an obvious destination, with the second largest Puerto Rican population (114,555 in 2014) after Orange County.

    And the schools have a lot of seats. Districtwide, there were 27,000 vacant seats as of a few months ago, when district officials wrote up their five-year capital plan. Schools in the Town 'n Country area -- where many Puerto Rican families now live -- have a lot of those seats....

  15. From Hillsborough school officials, some arguments against suing over H.B. 7069


    We're two days from the Hillsborough County School Board's first public discussion on House Bill 7069 and the planned lawsuit against the state.

    But, when the issue came up at a meeting Tuesday of the board's finance committee, there didn't seem to be much appetite for a suit.

    Gretchen Saunders, the district's chief business officer wondered, instead of suing Tallahasse, "Why is it that we just can't we just go up there and talk?"...