Apr 24, 2023 - News

Black leaders push back against plans to close West Tampa school

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Local activist Jeannette Bradley spends an afternoon at Just Elementary School each week, gardening with students. She watches them dig their hands in soil, planting seeds and willing something to sprout.

  • To Bradley, the seeds represent the students' potential for growth. But she fears they may soon be uprooted.

Driving the news: The Hillsborough County School Board voted to advance a proposal last week to shutter the historic West Tampa school, where nearly 83% of students are Black.

  • Just would close at the end of the school year if the proposal clears a second vote on May 9. Students would attend Booker T. Washington Elementary or Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary.

Why it matters: The elementary school is underperforming academically, its student enrollment is dwindling and the district said it cannot recruit teachers to fill vacant positions at Just.

  • But Black leaders told Axios the proposal put forth by the school board is emblematic of how school choice can impact underserved communities.

Flashback: In 2022, Just was rated an F school, according to a spokesperson for Hillsborough County Public Schools. Last year, 11% of the students were proficient in literacy, and 22% were proficient in math.

  • "Moving the students to other schools will provide a better educational opportunity for them," the spokesperson said. "Both schools they would be reassigned to are graded a C."

Yes, but: Just was a C school before the pandemic.

Between the lines: Families assigned to Just often choose to send their children to magnet and charter schools instead, per the district.

  • In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a massive expansion to Florida's school choice program, making all students eligible for vouchers to attend private schools.

What they're saying: Bradley, who founded a nonprofit to help children of color succeed academically, said she's concerned with how the district will address the disruption from relocating students.

  • "They should be doing more to invest in the school," Bradley said. "But the investment also has to come from the community and in schools like Just, we don't see that type of investment."

Stanley Gray of the Urban League of Hillsborough County added that increasing parental involvement is difficult for Black parents who work hourly, non-exempt jobs.

  • The district talks "about the school being in decline for years," Gray told Axios. "Well, yeah, because you didn't give it any resources, and you didn't do anything to try to help it."

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