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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. Eakins: Potter Elementary leader and staff have my full support


    Our March 12 story about the past school year's difficulties at Potter Elementary in East Tampa drew strong reactions from inside and outside the Hillsborough district administration. 

    Here are some of the highlights:

    1. Superintendent Jeff Eakins wrote a two-page letter that was sent to all parents whose email addresses were registered with the district of more than 214,000 students. The letter also was posted on the website and sent out on Twitter....

    Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins issued a public letter stating his support for the leadership and faculty at Potter Elementary School.
  2. Girl Scouts' exec is named president of Hillsborough Education Foundation


    Kim Jowell is the new president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation, the non-profit support group announced Friday. She succeeds Phil Jones, who retired last summer.

    Jowell, 47, served most recently as a national council leadership strategist for Girl Scouts USA, the latest position in a long career with the organization.

    She has also worked as the executive director of the Suncoast Safety Council in Clearwater, the Largo-based Pinellas Village, Inc., and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office....

    Kim Jowell is the new president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation.
  3. State PTA launches Real Talk to give a voice to those underserved by public schools


    TAMPA — The Florida PTA, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is trying to get more people talking about equity in education.

    A California-based consulting group called "50+1 Strategies'' is helping mobilize teachers, parents and community leaders around the state. A digital media campaign is under way that allows people to describe experiences they've had in the schools....

    Bill Gates’ foundation gave $150,000 to the state PTA’s project.
  4. Despite grand promises, change comes slowly to Tampa's four-time F school


    TAMPA — This was supposed to be the year things finally got better at Potter Elementary.

    In July, when the state Board of Education asked Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins how he planned to turn around the four-time F school, he said the district had it handled.

    "You will not see me back here," he promised.

    Eakins had given one of his lieutenants a year to explore ways to improve troubled schools. He had said the resurgence of Potter and other Hillsborough campuses would be a model for the nation....

    First-year principal Melanie Hill — with Hillsborough County chief of schools Harrison Peters on the first day of classes on Aug. 10 — says she is trying every strategy to improve Potter Elementary, but that it takes time.
  5. Music teacher accused in testing investigation will move to a new school after suspension


    TAMPA — Vanessa Lewis, the Westchase Elementary music teacher suspended in June because of problems with an end-of-course exam, will be back at work later this month.

    A settlement with the Hillsborough County School District will have Lewis report to Morgan Woods Elementary School in Town 'N Country on March 20, said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

    Lewis will receive most of her back pay, minus what she would have earned during a nine-week suspension, Arja said....

    Vanessa Lewis
  6. Top Hillsborough administrator resigns


    Elizabeth Agresta, chief academic officer of the Hillsborough County Public Schools, has resigned.

    Agresta is leaving for personal reasons, said Tanya Arja, spokeswoman for the district. Eakins accepted her resignation and extended his best wishes, Arja said.

    Agresta joined the Hillsborough district in 2016 after a career with the Diocese of St. Petersburg school system. 

    She said this to her employees in the Hillsborough district's Office of Teaching and Learning:...

    Elizabeth Agresta is stepping down as Chief Academic Officer of the Hillsborough County Public Schools.
  7. Union: No forced teacher transfers into Elevate schools


    It took awhile. A good long while. By the time it happened, the Hillsborough County School Board member who pushed for the policy was no longer on the board.

    But Hillsborough now has a policy that delineates the definition and treatment of Elevate schools.

    Originally called Priority Schools -- the district got rid of that definition because people were confusing it with a state proceess -- Elevate schools are understood to have high needs that require extra attention....

    A student at Booker T. Washington Elementary, an Elevate school, researches properties of the sun.
  8. Hillsborough school times will likely change in August


    TAMPA — School hours will likely change in August for thousands of children in the Hillsborough County Public Schools.

    No details are available yet, and district leaders are seeking input from parents, students and teachers before they decide anything.

    But district officials expect they will bring the issue to the School Board for a vote in April or May. That way, parents will have the summer to make any needed adjustments....

    SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times A magnet school ramp in central Tampa for the Hillsborough County School District in 2014
  9. Race becomes an issue as Hillsborough school district creates a new outreach job


    TAMPA — In polite company, educators would never be caught pitting the interests of one minority group against another.

    But a conversation Tuesday evening about a new Hillsborough County School District position went straight to that unpleasant place.

    At issue was a plan to hire an assistant department manager for Hispanic outreach.

    This would be a new job, recognizing the fact that Hispanic students — a large number of whom speak Spanish in their homes — are now the largest demographic group in the district, at 35 percent....

    School board member Tamara Shamburger said "the optics are horrible" if the Hillsborough district appoints an outreach officer for Hispanic students and not for other minorities. But she withdrew her objection after she was assured all students will be served.
  10. North Hyde Park school rezoning passes School Board vote


    TAMPA — Future residents of North Hyde Park will send their children to Just Elementary, Madison Middle and Blake High School, the Hillsborough County School Board decided Tuesday.

    Before the rezoning, the area, which is embarking on a real estate renaissance, was in the attendance area for A-rated Gorrie Elementary, Wilson Middle and Plant High School.

    Just, Madison and Blake are rated D, C and C. But those grades reflect last year's students, and the neighborhoods are changing rapidly. North Boulevard Homes, a public housing complex that provided many of Just's students, is empty and awaiting demolition....

  11. Pride principal moves to Turner-Bartels


    Cindy Land, the longtime principal of New Tampa's Pride Elementary School, was named Tuesday as principal of the nearby Turner-Bartels K-8 School.

    Land has been with the school district since 2004, She began her career as a teacher at Dickenson Elementary and was soon promoted to assistant principal at Chiles Elementary. She became principal of Pride in 2009.

    Land replaces Jonathan Grantham, who left Turner-Bartels to become a deputy superintendent in Marion County....

    Cindy Land is the new principal of Turner-Bartels K-8 School in New Tampa
  12. School board meets today


    Expect some lively discussions at today's Hillsborough County School Board meeting, as members have pulled agenda items dealing with money, marketing and policy revisions.

    Melissa Snively is interested in ongoing rennovations to the district's office center at 40th Street and Columbus Avenue, which created a consolidated human resources department and also created space in the main headquarters for school board member offices. The latest price tag is just under $1 million, paid out of local property taxes. ...

    Hillsborough County School Board
  13. Cahoon-Van Buren merger meets resistance from magnet parents


    Julie Jones has three children at Cahoon Elementary, a magnet school that specializes in animal science. She went out to a recent community meeting to find out about the planned merger with Van Buren Middle School.

    She was not happy. "We want it to remain a magnet school," she said. But while the animal sciences program will remain as an attractor for children in the North Tampa neighborhood, it will no longer bus children in from neighborhoods such as Carrollwood, where Jones's family lives....

    Assistant Superintendent Larry Sykes led a question-and-answer session about the planned merger between Cahoon Elementary and Van Buren Middle School in North Tampa
  14. North Hyde Park area faces school rezoning: from Plant High to Blake High


    TAMPA — If the Hillsborough County School Board approves a rezoning request today, parents who buy into the urban renaissance on the west bank of the Hillsborough River could be in for a surprise.

    Instead of attending A-rated Gorrie Elementary, Wilson Middle and Plant High schools, the new students will attend the lower-performing Just Elementary, Madison Middle and Blake High schools. The latter three schools have higher poverty rates and state grades of D, C and C....

    A rendering of Lafayette Place, a mixed-use development planned for downtown Tampa near the historic Lafayette Street Bridge. The largest building, in the foreground, is Lafayette Tower. Hillsborough County school officials are planning to redraw attendance zones in the area to accommodate the expected influx of students from the project. [Hillsborough River Realty]
  15. State sides with Eakins in complaint from a Hillsborough teacher


    Are Hillsborough County School District officials bending the rules to please a board member?

    That's the common thread in allegations made by adult education teacher Laurie Rodriguez over the past year.

    A state ethics office is looking into the matter of free day care at Leto High School for member Susan Valdes' grandchild. Rodriguez later questioned the hiring of a friend of Valdes who did not have a college degree -- and, most recently, the possibility that the district communications chief was fired because he would not protect Valdes from media scrutiny....

    Laurie Rodriguez teaches adult education. She wants Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins to investigate possible staff wrongdoing, and has complained to the state.